During my first six months of writing this column, I have made a concerted effort to focus on education topics that move me and, hopefully, are interesting to you, the reader. At some point, I always try to focus on the most important part of the education system--the students--and how they are affected by these different topics. Occasionally, it is necessary to delve into the political realm because politics and education are unfortunately inseparable.
There is currently a tightly contested state senate race in district 16 between the incumbent, Janice Bowling, and her challenger, Mike Winton. As a public school teacher and as a father of two girls who attend public schools here in Coffee County, education is my life. If you care about public education, as I do, then I implore you to cast your vote on November 8th for Mike Winton, who took time out of his day last Monday to talk to educators from across the district about how he could help us if he is elected.
In case you haven’t heard much about him yet, Winton comes from humble beginnings, being raised by a single mother who instilled a relentless work ethic that he carries with him every day as the owner of Sears in Tullahoma. During his meeting with teachers last week, I was impressed when he explained how he will use his work ethic to benefit teachers. When he’s not busy in the legislature, he plans on attending every school board and county commission meeting across district 16 that his schedule will allow. He wants to be visible and and available to his constituents. When asked what he would do if an education bill came along and he wasn’t sure how to vote on it, his answer was remarkably simple. He’d ask teachers. If time is pressing, then he would ask the state’s largest teacher’s association and greatest collector of teacher voice, the Tennessee Education Association, for their input.
Perhaps the thing that impressed me the most about Winton in meeting with him on Monday of last week is his understanding of how crucial it is for teachers to get their voices back by reinstating their collective bargaining power. Quick history lesson time: In 2011, the Republican supermajority damaged teacher voice by passing the Professional Educators Collaborative Conferencing Act (PECCA). This law severely limits what teachers can “bargain” about, thereby making it infinitely more difficult for teachers to improve their own working conditions. As a result, experienced teachers have been leaving the profession in droves, enrollment in teacher preparation programs in college has significantly decreased while our population is increasing with new schools being built every year, and Tennessee is in the beginning stages of what will become a severe teacher shortage in the near future. Naturally, all of this affects students who eventually will not have qualified teachers to instruct them.
Democrat Eric Stewart was the state senate representative for our district in 2011 and he voted against PECCA. Around the same time, this district was being redrawn, and the following year in 2012, Republican Janice Bowling was elected. She has, unfortunately, continued the legislature’s attack on teachers, as evidenced by her voting in favor of Senate Bill 151 last year, which makes the process more difficult for teachers to pay their teacher’s association dues. Also last year, she supported Senate Bill 027, which diverts public money into private schools for students who have individualized education plans and have one of seven specific disabilities. Senate Bill 027 opens the door for an expanded school voucher bill (like Senate Bill 999, which she supported) to pass the legislature in 2017--something that the Republican legislature has unsuccessfully tried to pass the previous five years under the guise of “school choice.
I truly hope that Mike Winton is elected our next state senator but, if that is not the case, our teachers and students need a representative who will not merely vote along party lines and will work with her colleagues to reverse the legislature’s assault on the education system. We need a representative who will listen to teachers and stand by our side when potentially hazardous education bills are introduced by lawmakers who are working on behalf of special interest groups who want to privatize education. We need a representative who recognizes that a state with a strong PreK-12 education system keeps people out of jail and is good for business.