Cook: Opening the door for education

Cook: Opening the door for education

February 19th, 2014 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse/Times Free Press.

In a week or so, state Sen. Todd Gardenhire plans to introduce legislation that will take some political bravery. His bill deals with a politically emotional topic -- the kind we yell at the TV about -- and is not necessarily along party lines. It may not even be the most popular idea -- at least just yet -- among his constituents.

"This won't benefit Todd Gardenhire one bit," he said Monday.

So why do it? Who does benefit?

"Kids," he said.

Gardenhire, wonderfully, is becoming a leading legislator regarding Tennessee's education policy. He recently introduced a bill that would allow born-in-America-children of illegal immigrants to qualify for in-state college tuition at a public college.

"I've got 18,000 Latino households in my district," he said. "On Saturday at 5 p.m., go down here to the East Lake Community Center and you'll find classes going on. ... It's packed out. These kids want an education. It's amazing what they want and what we won't give them."

His next bill is even more transformative. It's the same idea -- in-state tuition at a public college -- with one change.

"Anybody that is not a Tennessee resident, a U.S. citizen or not," said Gardenhire. "If they've gone to school here for five years, I say let them go ahead and pay in-state tuition."

You may not be a U.S. citizen.

Your parents may be undocumented immigrants.

But as long as you can prove you've been in Tennessee schools for five years, and you can maintain a GPA worthy of a Hope Scholarship, then the price tag for college becomes a reasonable, instead of out-of-reach, out-of-state tuition.

"Anybody," he said.

Gardenhire's philosophy has two planks. The first is economic: as a sales-tax state, we grow when people spend more. And having more college-educated students increases the spending in the state. And from a sales-tax-perspective, immigrants -- undocumented or not -- are contributing just like everyone else.

"They're paying sales tax," he said. "They're being taxed without representation."

Forget the right-wrong argument on immigration. Just view it as an economic issue.

Not long ago, Gardenhire studied a Heritage Foundation graph that illustrates how much money that citizens without high school degrees cost the government. His bill would reverse the negative drain by increasing the number of college students who not only contribute socially but financially as well.

"If you move them up that spectrum and get them educated they become a positive cash flow into the system," Gardenhire said.

Offering in-state tuition creaks open the door for a more perfect Tennessee. Like Bush's compassionate conservatism, this bill would hold students responsible -- you have to maintain a respectable GPA -- while also being merciful: College becomes a real possibility. It honors what we hold dear in America.

"They want to get ahead. They want to pay taxes. They want to become mainstream. And we're not letting them," he said. "I don't think that is right. That's not the way I was raised."

Gardenhire, who traces part of his heritage to the Cherokee Nation, said a foundational moment came during his childhood when his dad gave him a copy of "The Education of Little Tree."

The book -- its author became a source of great controversy in recent years -- would influence the young Gardenhire in ways no other book ever would.

"That book really set the tone of how I feel on these issues," he said. "[The protagonist] got all kind of stuff heaped on him. That touched me. I see a chance to do something about it and I'm going to do it."

The bill reminds us of the power of good legislation. More kids would reach college, which trickles down into the maturation and financial stability of our own society. It's forward-leaning, seeking to positively respond to the negatives surrounding immigration issues.

And it's fair.

"Only in North Korea do we punish families for what the father did," he said. "We don't do that here in America."

And the kids who would benefit from this bill?

"They didn't do anything wrong," he said.

What a lesson.

Contact David Cook at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.