A dismal opening scene

A dismal opening scene

January 10th, 2013 in Opinion Times

The convening this week of a new Tennessee Legislature has, unfortunately, already turned into a dismal prospect. Tennessee's Republican rulers, heady with the novelty of super-majorities in both chambers and no need to consider opposing voices, appear ready to flex their muscle by shoveling retrograde education policies down our school systems' throats.

Three of their legislative proposals illustrate their delusional vision of how to cure the state's educational shortcomings on the cheap. Some, for example, want to impose charter schools, a proven failure at solving school problems. Others are lining up to dictate untenable ways to kill off "failing schools" instead of providing additional resources to help their under-prepared and under-achieving students.

And, worse, in the wake of the horrific Sandy Hook massacre, some lawmakers promise legislation based on the insane idea of arming teachers, whether they like it or not, as a means of protecting students from maniacal mass-murderers armed with rapid-fire assault weapons and large-volume bullet magazines.

It's no coincidence that virtually all of the states' so-called "failing schools" are in impoverished urban neighborhoods and filled with students, often from broken families, who largely rely on free or reduced-price meals for nutrition. In these schools, poverty and socio-economic conditions beg more teachers, smaller classrooms, highly focused reading and math mentoring, before- and after-school enrichment programs, and additional resources to match those that come easily from strong, affluent PTA's in more prosperous neighborhoods.

Downsizing or closing these schools -- or siphoning off better students and state and local funding to private or charter schools -- would be irrationally destructive to students left behind. So would a parental vote to "close" a school's doors -- as would be allowed under another proposal -- rather than doubling down on its core mission with broader resources.

The proposal to arm teachers, an echo of the national chatter, is even more troubling. If Sandy Hook's teachers had been armed, the gun disciples and their kneeling lawmakers claim, they could have, might have, dueled with the killer's semi-automatic Bushmaster before he managed to kill more kids, and six of their educators.

That stunning presumption boggles the mind. Most teachers, like other ordinary people, know they're more fit to shepherd their students to the safest closet than they are to engage a rampaging killer in a panicky, adrenalin-fogged crunch of shoot-out justice. Most teachers, and their association's leaders, recognize that more sensible gun laws and more effective mental-health management are the keys to making society safer. Schools are but one of the public spaces -- shopping malls, theaters and places of worship are others -- where crazed killers have recently massacred people.

None of these insensible ideas are original or unique to Tennessee. The emboldened gun lobby, led by the National Rifle Association and embraced by Republicans who myopically cling to their niche constituencies, ginned up the arm-the-teachers mantra across the country on its Internet cookery of Crock-Pot ideas within hours after the massacre of 20 small children and six teachers in the Newtown, Conn., school.

More broadly, the NRA has been pushing the expansion of gun-carry laws -- in schools, bars, parks, churches and most every public place -- for years. Its agenda is among similarly destructive policies for public schools -- "government schools" in their advocates' disdainful lexicon -- and for taxpayer giveaways to businesses. All these have emerged nationally through the right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council, known as ALEC, over the past decade.

They are simply part and parcel of the anti-government timber amassed by ALEC as "model legislation" -- and promoted by billionaire neocon and libertarian sponsors like the Koch brothers and Wal-Mart -- to be shared among Republicans in most state Legislatures.

Tennessee's Legislature needs to rise above the dogma of the NRA and ALEC. The state needs more rational and practical strategies to improve education, and to attract the forward looking businesses that will secure our economic future and quality of life. Legislating backward educational policies will only diminish our opportunities.