U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy De Vos recently visited with lawmakers and schools in Nashville. According to the Associated Press and various media outlets, the Secretary declared, “School choice and education freedom is on the march…” The Secretary further elaborated that she was “cheering the governor and all of the legislators on here,” an indirect reference that points to two polarizing education bills that are advancing through the General Assembly at warp speed.
One would establish neo-vouchers, education savings accounts that will place taxpayer public funds on debit cards and allow them to be used at private and parochial schools as well as for unspecified educational related purposes. A second bill would preempt the authority of democratically elected local school boards by forming a state commission who would have the autonomy to circumvent local municipalities and approve charter school applications.
These actions pose an imminent threat to the welfare of our state, our schools and our students. Preemption, used as a political maneuver, will become an established precedent and will be painstakingly polarizing. Another negative consequence is that the legislature has failed to provide an overall fiscal analysis of the costs associated with these programs, particularly the voucher bill, as estimates have been given to the public that suggest that the program will costs upwards of $100 million, while the actual vouchers at a little over $7,000 would fail to cover tuition costs at most private and parochial schools. In addition, if a family of four can make nearly $100,000, double the free lunch limit which is 130 percent of poverty, how can this hardly be a program whose justification is being promoted as advancing the needs and necessities of students in poverty? Accountability has also failed to be firmly planted within this voucher plan, and as seen in Arizona, voucher funds could be spent on things such as beauty supplies, computer software, and any number of non-education related purposes.
If the officials who met with the Secretary wanted to advance the needs of all students, we would suggest fully funding the Special Olympics. We would suggest that the state concentrate on fixing a broken BEP formula whose inadequate funding mechanisms ranks 41st in the nation in per pupil spending. We would suggest one of the best ways to recruit and retain highly effective teachers would be to boost an average median salary that ranks 38th in the nation. We would suggest protecting the rights of students who have faced assault. We would say establish a special needs students Bill of Rights that works in concert with the American for Disabilities Act, IDEA, and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. We would suggest focusing on the non- discriminate administration of discipline by providing more data to the Civil Rights Data Collection and helping to eradicate a school to prison pipeline that disproportionately affects students and communities of color.
We also must ask, how will the legislature address the lack of African-American and minority teachers because at only 12 percent in any arena that would be viewed as a woeful and shameful number? Likewise, 40 of Tennessee's 95 counties have zero percent of African-American and minority teachers while Rep. Joe Towns is right to question why the words slavery and involuntary servitude still appear in the Tennessee State Constitution; how can we abide with such an egregious lack of urgency to address these ills? How will we ensure equal educational opportunity, equal access to resources and materials, and that a fully capable and qualified teacher is in every classroom? With reports across the state that have recently shown that disabled students have endured discriminatory treatment in discipline, how will we overcome this distressing element that is present? When will the state embrace a culturally relevant pedagogy that includes the type of culturally responsive teaching noted by Dr. Zaretta Hammond that focuses on collectivism, interdependency, building the learning capacity in students and leveraging their cultural identity and cognitive abilities that will help motivate them to reach the Zone of Proximal Development professed by Vygotsky amongst others.
Most importantly, as has been suggested by many scholars, when will we stop demeaning, debasing and disparaging the public schools. As Dr. Ivory Toldson asserts, we must come from a basis of strength-based assessments that addresses the deficits with our schools and students while simultaneously acknowledging their virtues such as their assets, creativity and resiliency. For this reason why can't we have have a statewide focus aimed at bringing to a halt labeling and branding schools as low- achieving, under-performing, failing and problematic and as a contrast begin to promote their virtues? As Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings has stated, we have moved way beyond the achievement and opportunity gaps and schools that need assistance in poverty stricken communities suffer from an often glossed over education debt that has been placed in that condition due to harmful policies that have become institutionalized and systemic, such as the closing of hundreds of African-American schools and firing more than 40,000 black teachers as a repudiation of the Brown v. Board decision, which effected things such as neighborhood schools, the hiring of minority teachers, and the exposing of students to programs and opportunities in the community and across the nation. Conversely, mass disinvestment in inner-city schools is still a rampant problem that persist in these schools and communities today.
Why can't we embrace proven methods and models? Dr. Pedro Noguera has developed a focus on the five essential ingredients that are needed for school improvement that in many ways is based on the University of Chicago’s Consortium on Chicago School Research model. These five components include: (1) A coherent instructional guidance system; (2) Continuous development of the professional capacity of staff; (3) Parental involvement and participation acting in collaboration with strong community-school ties; (4) A student-centered learning environment; (5) Shared leadership to drive change.
A 2015 online article by Joanie Harmon recounts an appearance by Noguera at the UCLA produced Bruno Seros-Ulloa Lecture held in December 2014. He is quoted as saying,
“What we should know by now is that there is no silver bullet...We have to increasingly remind our policymakers of that, because they will continue to fixate on some silver bullet solution, invest lots in it, and then wring their hands and blame the other leaders for not producing results.”
It is worth noting that before there was a Little Rock Nine there was Tennessee's Clinton 12, who were the first students to integrate a high school in 1956. The current course on which this state is chartered echoes of an era of education unseen since the heroic actions undertaken by those students. To limit the use of ESAs to only those municipalities that coincidentally have the state's largest minority populations is insidious and discriminatory. To preempt local LEA's decision to approve or deny charter expansions dictated by evidence-based data is reminiscent to the repudiation witnessed in the aftermath of Brown v. Board. As it is currently constructed, the neo-voucher program is so ripe for failure because of the lack of transparency and accountability associated with it that it may well rival the best pyramid and Ponzi schemes. Furthermore, the state has done little to promote and progress true diversity in schools and real strategies that will be beneficial to improving the outcomes for impoverished communities, for no other than it excluded some of the most impoverished areas in the rural sectors of the state.
For these reasons, we stand adamantly opposed to the expansion of vouchers in the form of education savings accounts, reject the notion that poor students will be the greatest beneficiaries of them, will only support charter schools that can demonstrate that they are accountable to local municipalities and democratically elected school boards, and call for the protection and guarantee of a full, fair and appropriate public education for all students that is viewed as a right to all and not a privilege of the few.
Respectfully, Unity Group of Chattanooga
Sherman E Matthews Jr., Chairman
Eric Atkins, Corresponding Secretary, chief editor