Cook: Secretary, please come with me

photo David Cook

Welcome to Chattanooga, Arne Duncan.

Here's the tour you won't get.

It starts in our public schools, which you aren't visiting.

How strange. You're the secretary of Education, the White Houser who came from Washington to tour the neighborhood. In Memphis, you're headed to an elementary school. In Nashville, a middle school. In Atlanta, Booker T. Washington High.

But here?

Tonight, you're visiting a preschool, not one of our public schools.

That's cold, Mr. Secretary. Low down and stone cold.

Was there no public school you'd want to see? No Hamilton County classroom to tell the rest of America about?

Let me tell you what you're missing.

"Lots of discontent. Resignation. Depression. Many teachers will leave this year, including me," one teacher recently told me.

Mr. Secretary, our public schools are on the verge of something quite awful, a ground zero of this perfect storm -- sorry funding, broken-hearted employees and warped policy -- that's just about to make landfall.

"Morale is low, really low," another teacher said.

You'd think it might be the buildings, some of which are crumbling, quite literally. If you have the time, ask to see the capital maintenance to-do list. It's James Michener-long.

Our county has a $200 million backlog of deferred projects, the things we keep putting off from year to year, generation to generation.

(Goodnight mold and leaky brown room. Goodnight flickering light and fungus in bloom.)

Or this low morale could have something to do with our elected leaders, who could do so much groundbreaking good, but consistently don't. They control the purse strings, but won't use them. When our county dies, its tombstone will read: our schools fell apart, but boy, we had a great bond rating!

If you'd been here two weeks ago, you could have witnessed the school board meeting. It was a doozy. Teachers lost part of their health insurance benefits, which was the equivalent of a pay cut. Then they got scolded by a board member, but only after being told that if they were unruly, they'd be escorted out.

With friends like those, who needs enemies?

"Teachers don't want a walkout, but the talk in the teacher workrooms and in the halls is about where do [we] start drawing some lines," one teacher said.

"I know two teachers from [Hamilton County] who just left the profession because they found jobs that paid more," said another. "I already see the brightest students graduate and they do not become teachers. They know the money isn't that good, and there is no glamour in teaching."

Don't forget about the TCAP. Last year, teachers and kids spent millions of hours prepping for The Test, which then, somehow, didn't count.

No one in Nashville has even lowered the drawbridge to explain why in any substantial way. We know more about Area 51 than the TCAP. There's been no public inquiry into what went wrong, with no real apology.

In fact, I'm not sure how you can even come to Tennessee and not address this, Mr. Secretary. Hello, Mr. Secretary?

(Brown bear, brown bear, what do you see? I see a crowd of angry teachers staring back at me.)

So yes, we have an approaching meltdown. Baby boomers will begin to retire, young teachers will start to leave and the top-shelf, award-winning educators will be recruited out of the public system and into private schools and industry.

"Who will suffer for this?" one teacher said. "The public school students."

And that, Mr. Secretary, says it all.

In spite of all this and more, our public school teachers pour themselves out each day like a packet of seeds. Their benefits are cut, their profession belittled, their workload quadrupled, but they continue to teach their hearts out because -- listen closely -- they love the kids.

And it seems like no one else does.

That's why they're angry.

Because if all this is like a gut punch to them, it's a body blow to the kids, whose needs are not being met under a system that horsecollars the very professionals it is supposed to respect, elevate and honor.

So enjoy your trip, Mr. Secretary. Maybe next time through, you could visit a public school and talk with some of our teachers.

Let's hope they're still around.

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