Smith: Funding education failure is indefensible

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen talks about the state's plan for education Tuesday night at Orchard Knob Elementary School. The plan is called "Every Student Succeeds Act" (ESSA).
photo Robin Smith

Last week, Candice McQueen, Tennessee's education commissioner, spoke to state legislators who serve on two education committees. Her presentation was not only remarkable, it was alarming, but finally, reassuring.

While addressing the state's reform efforts in failing schools, McQueen said the school turnaround effort was "a little embarrassing," referring to the first list of "priority" schools published in 2012. Only about 20 schools have moved off the list of 83 substandard schools since the original assessment.

"We can't keep throwing $10 million, $11 million, $12 million, $15 million at solutions that are not solutions," the commissioner told members of both House education committees.

Every three years a priority list is compiled and published by the state Department of Education. This list is scheduled to be released this summer by the state-run Achievement School District, or ASD, which will identify schools under consideration for state intervention, with potential charter conversions, in the 2018-19 school year.

Complying to a 2015 state law, a priority list was issued last spring that provided a warning to schools whose academic performance put them in the bottom 10 percent of Tennessee public schools. There were 16 Hamilton County schools on this list. Further, five of our public schools fell into the bottom five percent of 1,833 public schools in the state.

McQueen's demeanor revealed the seriousness of school failure: "This is probably going to come across as a little preachy, but it is preachy. We've got kids who were sitting in schools that we knew - we knew - and I want you to listen to the years, back in 2002, 2003, 2004, that they were in a low-performing school that needed to turn around fast. [Those students have] now graduated, and we did not have the increases we needed at those schools to set them up for success."

Do we all understand the meaning of her remarks? For up to 15 years, data has been available revealing that failing schools have been permitted to continue to fail, not just at a monetary cost, but at an existential cost to children who are now adults.

The Hamilton County Board of Education, working with the Hamilton County Commission, is approaching significant decisions about school funding, building and capital outlays, and a new superintendent. Will Tennessee's fourth largest county prioritize the funding of schools with a record of success or continue to prop up those that have failed to improve, year after year? Will tax dollars be prioritized for classroom academics or extraneous expenses that boosters should support?

Of Tennessee's $34.8 billion budget, 48 cents of every tax dollar are spent for education. Education is the largest budget item in Tennessee. According to the most recent data, average per pupil spending now reaches $9,245 a year.

In McQueen's testimony, she identified characteristics that would enable schools to improve and move off the list of failing schools: strong school leaders, quality instruction, and community and wraparound supports.

Plain and simple, as needs grow in our school system, tough decisions are ahead. But the idiocy of continuing to fund failure is indefensible.

A couple of weeks ago, an elected politician in Tennessee made this statement, "We've got to protect our public schools!" It should have been, "We've got to educate and prepare our children!"

Preach on, Madam Commissioner, preach on!

Robin Smith, a former chairwoman of the Tennessee Republican Party, owns Rivers Edge Alliance.