This campaign season, education issues in Hamilton County have been at the forefront of debate — especially given the state's first-ever partisan school board races.
Republican mayoral candidates spent the bulk of a Feb. 21 debate discussing education and all agreed that revitalizing the county's education system is a priority.
With the May 3 primaries less than a week away, Chattanooga 2.0 — an organization dedicated to ensuring all youth receive a quality education — asked three Republican and one Democrat county mayoral candidates to respond to an education equity questionnaire.
"The Chattanooga 2.0 equity questionnaire is a demonstration of our commitment to keeping the community informed about issues that impact all children, and to holding local elected leaders accountable for educational equity in Chattanooga-Hamilton County. It has never been more important for us to work together to ensure every child has access to the resources and supports needed to reach their full potential, cradle to career," Jennifer Bronson, Chattanooga 2.0 executive director, said in a news release.
The Times Free Press excerpted answers from the three candidates who responded, below. The full questionnaire can be viewed on Chattanooga 2.0's website.
As of Wednesday, Republican candidate and County Commission Chairwoman Sabrena Smedley, of Ooltewah, had not yet submitted her responses. She told the Times Free Press by phone that she plans on doing so in the coming days.
What role should Hamilton County, specifically, play in eliminating racial and socioeconomic disparities in resource allocation and access to high-quality learning options for children and youth, from birth to career?
Democrat Matt Adams: "We owe it to our students to prepare them from early childhood on for successful lives filled with opportunities. That means we must invest in the digital and physical infrastructure of our schools, so our students and teachers are set up for success from the beginning. Our students deserve the best facilities and best-trained teachers we can offer them. We must set them up for success early on, and that will continue into the grades following."
Republican Matt Hullander: "I believe in supporting programs that prepare our children to be ready to learn — in short, a mixed delivery system that rewards effective programs and puts focus on those that are lacking. Because over 60% of our children don't receive early childhood education, I will work closely with Superintendent [Justin] Robertson to make sure he has the funding to meet those needs."
Republican Weston Wamp: "I mentioned that leadership from the county mayor's office, the health department and Hamilton County Schools should work together to educate parents on the importance of the earliest stages of childhood development. Specifically, we should bring back Kirkman Technical High School, which was tragically closed in 1991 despite opposition from many in the Black community. Kirkman was the largest vocational high school in the State of Tennessee and in the '80s and '90s, the majority of its students were minorities."
Child care deserts persist in rural areas of the county, leaving families without the reliable, quality options needed to participate in the workforce. What would you do to ensure equitable early care and education opportunities for families?
Adams: "The state of Tennessee is investing several billion more dollars in public education throughout the state this fiscal year. We must invest the funds we are receiving into closing gaps that have widened over the last couple of years. The county needs to invest in early childhood learning by developing a robust program that will prepare our students both in school and beyond and give parents the ability to get to work without increased worry of their child's well-being."
Hullander: "The pandemic caused a huge disaster for those in the child care profession. Over 40 of our local child care facilities closed down during this time, losing many of our essential workers. We don't do enough to thank them for all they do each day. My recommendation would be to work toward a mixed delivery system for child care that would allow 4-year-olds to stay in child care facilities that work well and to provide similar learning environments in more rural schools where there are fewer opportunities for focused learning. As a business owner, I've always paid for performance, and I believe this situation calls for a similar approach."
Wamp: "The city and county mayors need to address early childhood education comprehensively in partnership with large employers in our community, nonprofits and HCS. None of these entities can adequately address this crisis (and it is a crisis) alone."
What steps do you support Hamilton County taking to ensure students from low-income backgrounds and students of color have equitable access to out-of-school time programming and enrichment?
Adams: "Working with the nonprofit sector is a cornerstone of what I plan to do as the next mayor. The county has to provide opportunities for our underprivileged students, and we can certainly accomplish that if we work with the groups that work day in and day out to provide those opportunities. Bringing in groups and individuals that are experts in their particular fields will allow for the long-term success of our students in Hamilton County."
Hullander: "If I am elected mayor, I will listen to Superintendent Robertson and school board members who are closest to the schools they represent to learn about their needs and how the county can support those efforts. My job is not to form policy, but to support it."
Wamp: "This is another example of where the city and the county mayors should work together to ensure that students have access to libraries, parks and the other public amenities that our community has to offer. A personal area of passion for me is connecting low-income students with entrepreneurs and business leaders — these encounters are a valuable learning opportunity for both parties."
Contact Carmen Nesbitt at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6327. Follow her on Twitter @carmen_nesbitt