Roy Exum: ‘Backwards’ Education

Thursday, December 28, 2017 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

It is quite laudable that Chattanooga legislator Todd Gardenhire will try again to get in-state college tuition for children of illegal immigrants in Tennessee. When you realize that these kids are victims – they hardly wished for their circumstances – our society must “do what’s right” for every child in Tennessee. I’m all for it but … it must take its place in the food chain. Today any college is grossly over-rated and far-less important in the face of infant poverty across the state.

You see, I am of the opinion there is a much bigger solution for our young as well as our future. I believe every community in the state would be far better served to have mandatory pre-K education for every four-year-old and most three-year-olds. Today it is voluntary and terribly underfunded. But, whoa! I am told in Hamilton County that 50 percent of those entering kindergarten are not prepared for it. Forget the college experience – almost 40 percent of freshmen at UT never graduate and may be saddled with debt and work for minimum wage. They are just like those high school classmates who never went to college except they didn’t get suckered for the student (wink! wink!) loan.

Any fool can see we have plainly got this backwards – start with the head of the snake instead of the tail. If we will flood our elementary schools with day care/pre-K money and slash the ridiculous spending on the college level, UT-Knoxville will soon graduate more than just 65 percent of its students. And, yes, a 65 on any test in Knoxville is failing no matter what a college dean might boast. You want to improve Tennessee, improve our infants first and everything will fall in line.

It is painfully obvious to me that if we can get each and every child ready for kindergarten – regardless of circumstance -- we won’t be playing a fruitless game of catch-up with that same child for the next 12 years. According to the National Center for Children in Poverty, the last figures (2015) reveal that in the state of Tennessee, there are 780,345 families with 1,458,890 children. Do you know that over one fourth of those children (372,172) live in poverty?

I don’t want to bore anyone with a bunch of statistics but, face it, until we face the truth we will sleep in a bed of lies. For example, the state Department of Education wants to go in partnership with the Hamilton County Schools in a five-year folly to improve our lowest performing schools. It is not going to be successful. It will not be successful. And won’t ever be successful until we embrace the “total child” – all 372,172 of those children in poor families. Candace McQueen, the bumbling Commissioner of Education who has had a different standardized test in each of the three years she has been in office, has attempted to make chicken salad with chicken feathers in Memphis and in Nashville and has failed miserably. That will undoubtedly occur here because the kids got left behind.

Please, every child is a hapless victim, that’s easy to see. But these babies aren’t automatically stupid. Of the poor children in Tennessee, 44 percent are Hispanic, 42 percent are black, 18 percent are white and 12 percent are Asian. We don’t have a cut dog’s chance until we fill in the void in the crucial first years of a child’s cognitive learning process.  Look at these NCCP statistics on the poor in Tennessee:

* -- 28% (105,336) of children in poor families have at least one parent who is employed full-time, year-round compared to 85% (926,716) of children in non-poor families.

* -- 40% (147,459) of children in poor families have at least one parent who is employed either part-year or part-time compared to 11% (118,791) of children in non-poor families.

 * -- 32% (119,377) of children in poor families do not have an employed parent compared to 4% (41,211) of children in non-poor families.

Please, get a crayon. Connect the dots.

Today almost 80 percent of African-American babies are born out of wedlock. The five low performing schools that will soon be pirated by the state – at a cost of millions in unnecessary spending – are filled with poverty children who weren’t nurtured early. The single parents are doing all they can to feed a hungry family. I have countless educators who admit children who are behind (60 percent of Hamilton County’s third graders cannot read at grade level) will never catch up to their peers. It’s plain old common sense.

I do not wish to offend anyone, nor dare point a finger, but we have one school where over 400 eat free breakfast and free lunch because it is the only food they’ll get that entire day. With daycare costs spirally out of control and no way for our poor to pay it, it is time that Chattanooga get into day care with an asterisk. DayCare* is really pre-school and the state of Tennessee needs to focus much harder on our most needy if we ever hope to save them. We can save almost all of them early, but we can’t save even five percent of the freshmen who fall for the college fable.

It is beyond the realm of all understanding why our colleges have so much money and our high schools do not. Chattanooga’s public schools have a $320 million backlog in repairs. If college is a pipe dream, and elementary/secondary education is a necessity, why can’t Todd and our other legislators differentiate between an obligation and a shell game? Each education is the answer, and we must approach it in that vein. (An aside: Tell illegal children to join the Armed Forces, serve their new country, and go to school free.)

We’ve got our values and our goals completely out of whack. Look at this:

At UT-Knoxville, where 20 percent of the freshman class doesn’t return for a sophomore year and only 65 percent of a given class actually graduates over a six-year span, current building projects include:

* -- West campus dining facility ($234 million)

* -- West Campus Housing, Phase III ($234 million)

* -- Volunteer Blvd. Phase II ($5 million)

* -- Ken & Blaire Mossman Building (science related) $96 million

* -- New Lake Parking Garage ($18 million)

* -- Student Union ($167 million)

* -- UT Tennis Stadium ($4.7 million)

Are you kidding me? And all along you thought drunk sailors on shore leave were bad about spending!

Now, you want the scent of the fox? A 2017 report from Forbes reveals there are 27,800 full time students at UT. About 95 percent of them take out student loans and, when they graduate, the individual debt is roughly $25,000 apiece. About 35 percent of students graduate in four years; 65 percent graduate in six years. In-state tuition is $12,400. Out of state is about $30,000. Wouldn’t you love for Donald Trump to do a cost analysis on this? Lordy, he the man who Tweet!

Yes, our education model is totally preposterous but in Tennessee there is a better word that has been used for centuries: We’re backwards. Tennessee is backwards.

The only way forward is by vote in 2018.

December 27, 2017


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