Opinion: Who are Tennessee politicians listening to? Once again, not voters

Staff file photo / Students at Brainerd High School study during a free period with U.S. History Teacher Davis Lane, right.

On election day last November, voters told Chattanooga Times Free Press staffers something that surprised us.

Most told us they rated our public schools only fair (38%) or poor (27%). That wasn't the surprising part.

The surprise was that those same voters also told us they would support a tax increase to provide additional funding to our schools.

More than two thirds -- 66% -- of the people Times staffers interviewed at six early voting sites and 19 precincts across the county said they would pay higher taxes to provide extra funds to the school district. Only 29% said they would not support such a tax increase.

At one of those polling places, Walden Town Hall on Signal Mountain, several voters remarked the question was hard for them to answer. They viewed the schools on the mountain as excellent, but they knew other schools were not as good. Still, the vast majority there said they would support a tax increase to improve the other schools.

Over the years, we've written scores of editorials about Hamilton County's poor standardized test results. And we've written scores more about how often our politicians would turn themselves inside out to resist raising taxes -- even for schools.

But our survey last election day -- asking more than just about education -- suggests people in this county understand our children are more than just our future. They are our bread and butter workers. Some of the folks we talked to in Walden said they operate businesses and cannot find capable workers. They blamed that on our schools. And they should.

Diving a little deeper into our voters' attitudes about schools, money and education, we also asked if they thought taxpayers should provide more support for private school vouchers. The resounding answer was no: 66% said no to tax dollars for private school vouchers. Yet 25% said yes. Is this another reflection of how worried county voters have become about public schools?

We also asked if they favored or opposed Tennessee's ban on teachers in public schools being allowed to teach critical race theory: 50% said they opposed the ban, while 37% favored it and 11% were unsure.

If you're trying to remember how our politicians have acted -- aside from mostly putting their heads in the sand when the subject of tax increases came up, here's a little reminder.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee came up with the plan to give taxpayer money for private school vouchers in his first term and the program finally got a start last year after litigation was finally concluded in favor of the voucher plan.

Then Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, sponsored a bill to expand the state's voucher program to Hamilton County. (It currently is limited to Shelby County and Metro Nashville school districts.) Gardenhire, who had initially opposed the voucher plan unless Hamilton County was opted out, said he changed his mind as Hamilton schools ceased improving after COVID hit.

In our view, this all means that if Hamilton County public schools didn't already face enough of an uphill battle, the climb will get still steeper -- even with the extra funding for "high dosage" tutoring from federal COVID-19 relief.

Unlike what voters told us they want, our politicians are now talking about taking money away from public schools and putting it in private schools. What will that do to the quality of education in our public schools?

Hamilton County has 40 private schools (75% of which are religiously affiliated) serving 11,880 students -- higher than the statewide average. Our 79 public schools serve more than 44,550 students.

What about critical race theory? Our supermajority-Republican Tennessee General Assembly voted 25-7 in the Senate to ban something not even taught in our schools. In the 99-member House, the vote was 69-20 to ban CRT, the concept of systemic racism. Worse still, the law they passed punishes public schools with a threat to strip funding if something deemed CRT is taught there.

The result has been chilling in many history classes, according to some teachers who are now afraid to address subjects like slavery or the Trail of Tears. And can you blame them? Would you want to be the teacher responsible for state politicians pulling the funding from your school or school district?

So let's review: Voters in November told the TFP they would willingly pay more taxes to improve schools. The federal government -- the Biden administration and the U.S. Congress -- sent some of our tax dollars to do that -- to hopefully pull our students' grades back up from the COVID doldrums.

But our state lawmakers opted to threaten to pull state money back from schools and have voted to give our tax dollars to private schools.

Is anybody in Tennessee listening to Tennessee voters? It doesn't seem so, does it?

Here’s how voters rated the school system:

— Fair: 38%.

— Poor: 27%.

— Good: 22%.

— Unsure: 9%.

— Excellent: 1.9%.