Roy Exum: Vouchers Are Coming

Saturday, January 25, 2020 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

Last Wednesday a friend walked into a fast-food restaurant on South Broad Street. He placed his order with the young woman working the register and soon it was delivered on the counter. “That will be $11.60,” said the girl and my friend, realizing he had left his credit card in the car, pulled a $20 bill from his pocket instead of swiping the card. “I am sorry,” said the girl, “but we don’t take cash.” When my man demanded to know when dollars and cents went off the menu, the girl admitted, “That’s about me … I do not know how to make change.” (My friend fetched his plastic card, paid for the order electronically, and was on his way.)

Understand, this girl is old enough to work (age 18), had provided a copy of her high school diploma, and passed the required drug test, but on this day, in January of 2020, she was unable to bust a $20 because she could not count.

This week it was learned two-thirds of our eighth graders across the state of Tennessee cannot read at grade level; opening the theory that if you can’t read, you cannot learn. And once again it was bought up that Tennessee ranks 45th in the United States in education funding. The only state in the Southeast region that is worse at per-pupil funding is Mississippi.

Currently the Hamilton County Board of Education is streamlining its school system with a redistricting, zone-changing, plan that admittedly is overdue. HCDE’s schools are falling down – begging for over $1 billion in physical improvements – but it is a foregone fact that much of what has been proposed is lacking in common sense. School officials are keenly aware of the public’s ire and are now retreating, saying some “alternate plans” may be spawned by a series of embarrassingly attended community meetings.

To top it off is a monster game-changer: Governor Bill Lee is pressing for a voucher program by this fall, this where public school parents can claim vouchers that will enable children to attend private schools. Money that would go to the public school districts for each child will now be siphoned off to pay the private schools. Governor Lee wants the program in effect as soon as possible and, while Hamilton County and Knox County are stalling for more time, a story on the website reveals there are 30 private schools in Memphis, another 26 in Nashville, and one already from Knoxville who have submitted interest in partnering through the voucher process.

Needless to say, there are a good number of Hamilton County parents standing by. Some are ready to sue if Hamilton County is excluded. Not only are some disillusioned parents working second jobs to afford “quality education” for their children, the voucher would be a Godsend to offset each family’s cost in their understandable quest to escape the poorly performing public system. While it is too early to predict how many parents would venture into a private school setting, the potential loss of students and the money the HCDE might lose could have a big effect on the rezoning efforts now underway.

That brings us to a college you do not know about but the intent of which you most certainly should. The Williamson College of the Trades is located in Media, Pa., (due west from Philly) and it focuses on “back-row” students who are quite innocently cursed by generational poverty. An all-boys institution where almost every student is sponsored by foundations, endowments and donations, Williamson cuts through the chaff and gives degrees in six trades: masonry, machinery, carpentry, painting, power plant operation, and horticulture.

It is in a highly discipled setting where a coat-and-tie inspection is held every morning before chapel. Older students mentor – and lead – the younger ones. Classroom work includes accounting, reading blueprints, and writing on a business model – none of this akin the namby-pamby boredom forced on Hamilton County students that to a senior in high school they despise. Every student must take a speech class. No beards, mustaches or Afro hair – the experience being future employers prefer well-groomed and readily presentable gentlemen. There are hands on physical classes every day where every student takes shop-based courses similar to his major because – why? -- trades often overlap, i.e., don’t stand there waiting on somebody, grab it by the horns, apply a wrench, and get the job done.

A three-year program, almost 74 percent of Williamson men graduate before that. This is documented – 94 percent already have jobs waiting on them and starting pay of $75,000 raises no eyebrows. Put the same low-income graduates in mainstream college and of the 61 percent who dare to venture into the non-nurturing college morass, just 26 percent graduate after six years.

We have 43,000 students in HCDE and re-zoning and sending this group here and that group there is about as challenging as herding cattle. The primary focus isn’t student numbers, or consolidating the most unlikely opposites to soon sit in the same class. The goal is to make every child flourish and, lest I hurt any feelings, HCDE has done a darn poor job of it. It’s a big story; this week it was shown Hixson High and Memorial Hospital are partnering to give kids a real-life experience in health care. Please, stand before Memorial’s board and tell them two-thirds of our eighth graders can’t read. This is no more than charity dollars because the students cannot equal the expectations.

Some of Chattanooga’s finest companies have ventured with our high schools but what the HCDE will never admit is that these students are far from ready. It is a sad prediction of what is going to happen when a bright-eyed high school graduate can’t make change for a $20. That’s your “real life experience” and to not confront it is the public school’s failure.  Never, not ever, have Chattanooga’s top industries needed quality hires as badly, yet 45 percent of Hamilton County’s workforce lives outside the county lines.

As you wince and wiggle over the fact HCDE is proposing “a temporary solution,” this is less than honest. And it will be until the realization calls on all eyes forward and every hand on deck – the total effort focused on reading, writing and arithmetic.

Answer me this: I have been out-of-pocket and probably missed it but whatever happened to the emboldened trouble makers who create havoc by the day? What, they are still playing the game, not forced away to attend some fantasy reform school? I know that was promised, but so have other things made it only past lips. I failed to see where they will be transferred, nor where in this “temporary solution” they go each day. Did the HCDE announce how many teachers quit mid-term? And the teacher raises, has any progress been made to bring that to fruition? I saw a list of about 30 “institutes” the Hamilton Country schools have created in the most puzzling jigsaw puzzle that has ever been. Simply from a logistics view, this mishmash is ridiculous. Hamilton County is about 350,000 people spread over 576 square miles, or 542 square miles if you subtract the water surface.  And the Institute for Architecture and Design is at Ooltewah High alone? Where does the girl from Signal Mountain apply?

The job market has never been as fertile but there isn’t a public bus that can take you from downtown to Sequoyah, where our ghost of a vocation school is located up near Soddy Lake. I cannot emphasis this enough: Chattanooga companies want and deserve a competent labor force that our schools once provided. A centrally located vocational school should be a high priority, or one should think. Now it is a three-to-one bet the majority of our students do not know the difference between a pint and a quart. Go ahead, ask any one of them.

Instead of algebra we should teach civics. Home economics should be required from every student because, while they’ll never understand algorithms, in the days ahead every one of them will need to sew on a button, many will babysit a newborn, and all should know why boys should never wear a ball cap during an inside gathering, much less a church. We should have a mandatory service week, where mornings are spent with military recruiters and afternoons reserved to tidy up school neighborhoods. Oh, I could go on and on but some kids, honest before God, don’t know why you would ever cut an elderly Viet Nam veteran’s yard for free. Believe, we need to teach these things to our middle and high school students and, what’s more, explain how to change a $20 bill. 

It is easy on a cell phone, you know, but where the hang-up begins is because these have never been asked such a question, much less begged Siri for what is the change when $11.60 is cut from a $20 bill?

You sure about that, Siri?


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