Local struggles in education

Local struggles in education

February 20th, 2011 in Opinion Free Press

How blessed the Chattanooga area has been during the ongoing economic crisis with the recruitment of major manufacturers and other businesses such as Volkswagen, Internet retailer Amazon and many others. The vote of confidence by those companies creates justified optimism about our prospects for long-term prosperity.

Chattanooga, Hamilton County and the surrounding area also are rightly proud of this region's natural beauty and varied attractions. And a phenomenal can-do spirit drives local residents to volunteer in high numbers for countless civic endeavors.

In short, there are many areas in which we are progressing and fulfilling our potential as one of America's finest places to live and work.

But in at least one key area, we are not really making the progress that we desire: public education.

It is no secret that an unusually high percentage of local students attend private or home schools. There are many reasons for that, of course, and not all of them reflect lack of confidence in public schools, some of which offer a solid education.

But too many of the young people in our public schools drop out before graduation, setting them on a difficult path in life and sharply diminishing their chances to get jobs that pay middle-class wages. In addition, instances of violence and disorder sabotage the learning atmosphere for those students who are dedicated to getting a good education.

Not all of these problems can fairly be laid at the feet of the schools, teachers and administrators. Many students come from broken or unstable homes where education is not valued. Those social ills are not the fault of schools.

But wherever the fault lies, poor academic results should not be ignored. You may have read recently in the Times Free Press that at 26 of 31 public high schools in the Southeast Tennessee region, ACT scores dropped in 2010, by an average of roughly one point. (That may not sound like much, but it is when you consider that the maximum possible score is 36.) The statewide average score was 19.6, but in this area, it was more than a point less, at only 18.4.

Some point out that more students are taking the ACT these days, which could be helping push down scores. Perhaps so, but it is still alarming that our regional scores lag behind those of the state as a whole. And neither the regional nor the state scores are exactly "good."

There is no easy solution. Nothing a school does is a substitute for a student having an involved, two-parent family where academics and good behavior are valued.

But we should at least look at measures that could help. In Georgia, lawmakers are considering a bill to expand that state's educational voucher program. Under the existing program, students with special needs are permitted to use taxpayer-funded vouchers to attend other schools of their choice, including private schools. The proposed bill would expand that option to children from military families and to youths in foster care.

Vouchers are not a total solution to our educational woes, but they were popular, economical and successful in Washington, D.C., before Congress unwisely de-funded them.

And in Florida, tens of thousands of students from poor families have gotten vouchers of around $4,000 a year to go to private schools. A study commissioned by Florida lawmakers found that those students were getting as good an education as their low-income counterparts in public schools - but at only a little over half the cost per student! The results were so encouraging that the St. Petersburg Times wrote: "Want to save the state money at a time when school budgets are being slashed? Offer more vouchers."

Don't vouchers and other cost-effective, achievement-enhancing educational proposals deserve Tennessee lawmakers' strong consideration?