Believe in Tennessee

May 21, 2024 at 02:55 pm by JC Bowman

A campaign started several years ago with a simple premise: “Believe in Tennessee.” Over time, that slogan lost steam, and out-of-state special interests and the status quo replaced the vision. Some argue that we no longer uphold the core principles of limited government, personal accountability, fiscal responsibility, and respect for the rule of law. State government expenditures have grown in the last decade, and we have lower-than-expected tax collections.  

Our state's potential for prosperity is limitless when Tennesseans are not just passive observers but active participants in civic affairs and when they enjoy financial security. Every voter's voice is a catalyst for change, and every worker's ability to provide for their family is a testament to our collective strength. Our state and local leaders must foster and prioritize civic engagement with our citizens, empowering each individual to take responsibility for the future of our state.

We have all witnessed policymakers promising solutions in public education and experienced the deep disappointment of quick fixes for deep-rooted educational issues. But let's not lose hope. To truly enhance education, we must move beyond surface-level solutions. As parents, educators, and community leaders, our role is pivotal in discerning genuine reform from empty gestures. Together, we can drive lasting change.

Our advocacy for education policy in Tennessee underscores the power of local communities and the critical importance of local control in the American education system. Conservatives have historically defended local educational autonomy as a cornerstone of democratic values. Tennessee has increased state mandates on public schools. We must focus on academic achievement instead of conforming to bureaucratic requirements.

The US Department of Education has sometimes prioritized political interests over educational ones, highlighting the need for local control. Conservatives have advocated for eliminating the DOE, but reducing the federal policy role remains unlikely without concrete plans and significant actions. The federal direction and oversight will continue under both parties.

Most citizens believe in local control and advocate for public schools to be governed at the level closest to those it serves. This approach empowers elected local officials to decide on crucial aspects of schooling, including school expenses, teacher selection, and instructional materials. Rules, standards, and regulations alone cannot drive improvements in education. Innovations and meeting student needs should happen at the local level. Tennessee must ensure that local schools have the freedom to innovate for school improvement and student success.

The late David Tyack, a professor of education and history at Stanford University, talked about a lost opportunity in American education: the power of local control to link public schools more firmly to their communities. Tyack was concerned about national policy talk in education. Our purpose in education needs to be broader and more connected to local concerns. He said, “National gurus typically talk about education and economic survival and students as potential human capital.”

Tyack added, “When people think about their own best experiences, not about the abstractions of human capital, they tend to think about social learning, about intellectual excitement. In other words, they are remembering learning, generously construed. Not just filling in the bubbles on some test, but getting excited about a subject, learning how to live productively with others, absorbing the habits of civility.” Tyack was way ahead of the curve. 

Education leaders seeking to build relationships with all stakeholders must respect the entire community, engage with parents, and promote a balanced historical approach. Open communication and transparency must be prioritized to reassure parents of the education system's commitment to their children's well-being. While school systems often excel in public relations, they must improve communication, be timelier, and accommodate parental schedules.

Courtney Gore, a Texas school board member, initially campaigned against school indoctrination but has since retracted her stance after finding no evidence of such practices. The widespread indoctrination that she had vehemently criticized did not exist. She now believes that wealthy donors are leveraging school board races to advance a voucher system, a stark illustration of the profound impact of political influences on education. Those groups are active nationally.  

This revelation led to a significant shift in her perspective. Whether other policymakers follow suit and break ranks with national groups remains to be seen. However, we have focused on many issues irrelevant to students' academic success. In the future, we are likely to see an increase in special interest groups' political spending in school board races and other political campaigns across Tennessee. Transparency is critical in political expenditures. The government should never be up for sale to the highest bidder at any level or price.

Public schools governed locally offer advantages such as tailored decision-making, local insights into policies, and community ownership. School board elections should align with national or state elections to enhance voter turnout. Unfortunately, school boards are just as ideological and pragmatic as other elected governance bodies with partisan school races.  

Frequent changes in leadership and ongoing criticism exacerbate the challenges faced by Tennessee educators. State and federal mandates affecting classroom environments have led to frustration and disillusionment among educators, causing many to leave our profession. Support for public schools starts at the local level.

Do we still believe in Tennessee? Every generation of parents aspires to create a better world for their children. In our society, we can engage in respectful discussions, support others, pursue our dreams, and reach our full potential. Through hard work and determination, anyone in Tennessee can climb the social and economic ladder and create a brighter future for themselves and their children. Even when challenges arise, our belief in Tennessee remains well-founded.



JC Bowman is the executive director of Professional Educators of Tennessee.

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