This column, which originally appeared in Tennessee Education Report, is from State Rep. Craig Fitzhugh, who is the Democratic Leader in the TN House of Representatives.
Every one of us learns something new every day. Whether it is in a classroom, something we read or hear through media, or just a new fact we get from a friend or family member, we are constantly learning new things about our communities, our state and country, and our world.
Being educated doesn’t mean you will always know the answers; it means you have the tools to go and find the answers. As a young man growing up, there is no way that my friends and I could have imagined the technological advances that we see today. But my teachers in tiny Ripley, Tennessee worked hard to make sure that we went out into the world prepared to learn throughout our lives, and I know our state is full of dedicated teachers who are continuing in this tradition.
HB 1049, the Tennessee Choice and Opportunity Scholarship Act, is the latest version of the voucher program that we have discussed in the General Assembly. On Monday, February 8th, members of the Tennessee House of Representatives will vote on whether or not to take money from our already underfunded public schools. A state that is ranked 47th nationally in school funding cannot take more money from its students. We must listen to the people of our state and vote no.
Consider this: the Tennessee School Board Association has 141 member boards. I asked their representative in a committee meeting how many of their school boards are against vouchers. His answer: 141. Not one school board in our state is for this program, but the proponents of the bill would have you believe that there is a ground swell for vouchers; there is not. School board members have some of the closest relationships with their constituents, and they are positively not for vouchers.
Vouchers are not only the wrong answer for Tennessee; they aren’t addressing the true question of why schools and districts are having problems. Kids who struggle in school are almost always having a deficiency in some areas of their life: they may be hungry, their home life may not be stable, and they may struggle with the hurdle of a learning disability, or simply may need glasses to see the board. Vouchers do not address these issues. Changing the location where a child goes during the school day does not change the environment to which they return every night. We have large-scale issues that must be addressed to improve our schools. A child that is hungry, tired and not prepared for the school day cannot be a success, no matter where their classroom is.
Voucher programs leave kids behind. We as a government, and as a society, are tasked with making sure each and every child receives a quality education. And kids are left behind in two ways: the first is that a child that doesn’t receive a voucher is left to what voucher proponents label a failing school. Second, the school district loses that portion of the Basic Education Program (BEP) funding that is delineated for each student. If we are removing money from our schools—to the tune of $130 million under this voucher bill—how will our public schools ever survive? To take money from our schools is akin to tying a milestone around someone’s neck, tossing them into a lake, and then ask them why they are drowning.
Public schools are the backbone of our society. They are what drive our communities. Good public school systems attract businesses and homebuyers. One of the first questions a prospective homeowner will ask—even if they aren’t parents—is the quality of the local schools. Any fall Tennessee evening you will find thousands of our neighbors at the local high school, cheering on their kids: the future of our state. Schools make our communities.
I do understand—and agree—that many of our schools and our students are struggling to achieve their goals. I know that not every school is the best it can be, and that to get all our students scoring were we want them to will be a Sisyphean effort, one that every student, teacher, administrator, parent and officeholder will have to work together to achieve. This is hard work, but not impossible work. As I heard a Metro Nashville Public School parent say during a committee meeting on vouchers, his kids didn’t need a voucher: they need a new school building, instead of the portable classrooms they learn in today.
The answer for successful Tennessee schools is this: we have to fully fund our public schools, support our students, teachers and administrators, and realize that we have no greater responsibility as a society than to make sure our children are healthy and educated.
Our future literally depends on it.