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Anika Exum / The Tennessean / A teenager sits with a sign expressing her opinion about a school mask mandate at Williamson County Schools' board meeting in Franklin, Tenn. on Tuesday, Aug. 10, 2021.

Parents' relationship to public education has changed since the pandemic, argues Brandy Howard, an Ooltewah parent of two who has worked for almost a year to engage more parents in the now rowdy politics of public schooling.

Howard didn't know much about school board candidates and often skipped their boxes on the ballot at voting time before COVID-19. Then schools went online, where parents could hear day-to-day classroom teaching.

"I was in the kitchen doing my dishes, and I was listening to my daughter doing her virtual class, and I heard something and I said, 'What did she just say?'" Howard told a fellow local conservative in a YouTube interview last year. "I started listening to what was being taught in those classes, and it wasn't good."

Howard and other parents mobilized during the pandemic around issues such as curriculum, library content, masks in schools and more — resulting in legislative changes such as the introduction of partisan politics to local school boards in Tennessee. In Hamilton County, primary elections on Tuesday set up partisan face-offs for six school board seats in the Aug. 4 general election.

Howard helped start Chattanooga's Moms for Liberty chapter. Nationally, the group was launched early last year by a conservative Florida mom to advocate for and unite parents wanting to resist mask mandates and vet curriculum.

"We have been room parents, team moms and dads, PTA moms and dads," Howard said in the interview. "We realized we don't like the decisions that are being made for our children. So here we are. You have seen us in different roles before, but now we are getting engaged on this level that we have never been engaged before."

A special book review committee — formed last fall after the Hamilton County school board began facing pressure from Chattanooga Moms for Liberty — made recommendations which included disgust over "gross explicit sexual content" and concern the school district's library handbook was a "liberal tool," as well as approval for current policies.

On the other side of the political spectrum, Moms for Social Justice — a local group of progressive parents — have opposed censorship efforts, saying they trust teachers and students.

"There has been a nationwide attack on literary freedom, librarians and educators by radical organizations and politicians, and one simply has to observe recent school board meetings to see that Chattanooga and Hamilton County are no exception," a news release for the group's March rally stated. "Most local parents and community members do not agree with the hateful rhetoric that singles out books authored by or highlighting the lived experiences of people of color as well as LGBTQIA+ folks."

In January, the McMinn County school board drew international attention when it voted to remove "Maus," a Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel about the Holocaust, from its middle school curriculum.

Across the country, there has been growing scrutiny over school curriculum.

Thirty-five states have introduced 137 bills limiting what schools can teach about race, American history, politics, sexual orientation and gender identity since the beginning of 2021, according to research by PEN America, a writers organization dedicated to free speech. This January alone, more than 70 such bills were introduced or prefiled across the country.

Republican lawmakers in Georgia passed a bill to increase parental oversight of schools and another which bans teaching "divisive concepts" on race. Meanwhile, a state bill requiring Tennessee public schools to publish lists of the materials in their collections and to periodically review the materials for "age-appropriateness" was just passed by the Republican majority, among the most recent examples of how local and state debate over public education has become hotter and more political.

Earlier this year Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee announced a plan to open charter schools across the state in partnership with Hillsdale College, a conservative Christian college in Michigan with ties to former President Donald Trump's administration. Legislators also passed another bill to allow teachers to refrain from using a student's preferred pronoun.

Last year Tennessee Republicans mirrored conservative legislators in other states by passing bills to prohibit public schools from mandating masks in most circumstances and restrict classroom discussion about racism, white privilege and unconscious bias.

"There is a lot of controversy, nationally," said Doug Dougherty, head of Hamilton Flourishing, a local, conservative think tank created by a group of Chattanooga Republicans concerned by organized efforts to increase property taxes for schools in 2020. "This stuff is going on all over the country. I think it is going to get feisty."

Still, the current debate is more than a pandemic-era squabble. Public education has been moving into political focus in Chattanooga and cities like it for some time, thanks to funding debates, rising student poverty and stagnated economic mobility.

Politics have always played out, for better or worse, through the public education system, which has grown to encompass so much more than the neutral ground of reading and arithmetic.

Politics gave it birth.

Photo Gallery

Politics still shaping public schools

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Free, public schools spread and began standardizing after Republicans legislated the creation of the U.S. Department of Education, which began amassing education data from states following the Civil War, particularly the enrollment and literacy rates of emancipated students.

Debate over evolution brought more politics into public schools. The trial of John Scopes, a Dayton, Tenn., schoolteacher accused of violating a 1925 Tennessee law that made teaching evolution in public schools illegal, became a national sensation.

In 1971, angry parents stalled a judge-ordered integration plan launched by the Chattanooga city school board when they took the board to court and got a ruling — later reversed — prohibiting taxation to fund busing.

Republicans, empowered by business leaders who believed American primary school teachers were dangerously causing students to question capitalism and fall behind some international peers academically, then launched the still ongoing accountability movement, which directed more public education dollars to privately owned charter schools and private school vouchers.

The Tennessee Value-Added Assessment Systems, developed by a University of Tennessee statistics professor, became the tool for judging teachers ability to improve students' standardized test scores. Testing became more rigorous. State funding began to fall. And teachers' unions, which give most of their financial support to Democrats, lost power.

In 1997, amid this huge, national shift in public education, the mostly middle-class, suburban Hamilton County school system — which had been scoring in the 90th percentile on state tests — absorbed Chattanooga's city schools, including a handful of the state's worst-performing elementary schools.

A multi-year effort to bring the city's elementary schools' test scores up by increasing incentives and support for teachers — funded by the Benwood Foundation and backed by then-Mayor Bob Corker — showed investing in teachers could pay off. So when the Benwood Initiative ended, the foundation and nonprofit leaders who'd been working to improve public school performance turned their attention to politics.

UnifiEd— backed by Benwood— was created in the summer of 2013 to engage the community in school board meetings and local elections. The last property tax increase for education had been passed by the Hamilton County Commission in 2005, and turnout for local school board and county commission races was low.

Then, in 2016, their advocacy campaign gained steam after a J.P. Morgan Chase-funded study released by the Chattanooga Area Chamber claimed Chattanooga was failing to produce an employable workforce. Many among the local business elite, including chamber leadership, began publicly pushing for schools to get more money and support.

That fall, three school board incumbents were voted out, and Jonas Barriere, a teachers union organizer who had previously worked for the Democratic Party and President Barack Obama's campaign, was named head of UnifiEd, a post he left in the spring of 2018 to run a separate but related political action committee.

***

As the UnifiEd Action PAC began endorsing candidates for the nine county commission seats up for election in 2018, the nonprofit UnifiEd presented the final results of their APEX Project, which had involved a few thousand county residents in distilling the community's public education priorities.

Their report called for more money for teachers and said socioeconomic and racial segregation in schools had to end, suggesting redrawn attendance zones, increased magnet school options, an open enrollment policy and transportation funding for students to attend schools they don't live near.

Soon after the APEX Project, UnifiEd and the UnifiEd Action PAC found themselves under assault from conservatives.

"This is not an organization pushing for better education, it's an organization pushing to change the profile of Hamilton County, our way of life and the way we continue to go do good work in this county," Tim Boyd, a Republican commissioner, said then.

When Democrat David Sharpe pulled through to win his district seat on the commission in the August 2018 election, it looked like there might be six commissioners in favor of a tax increase for schools. Yet, not long before the vote, Hamilton Flourishing, one of the first locally focused conservative policy think tanks in the country, came onto the scene with the financial backing of Provident Insurance heir Hugh O. Maclellen Jr.

When the school superintendent requested an additional $34 million in 2019 from the county commission, the new think tank mounted opposition.

That summer, the Republican majority blocked the tax increase efforts. So school leaders, forced to present a balanced budget, eliminated teacher and staff raises from the budget that was finally approved. An opportunity to provide raises to teachers and staff came up again months later but was cut off when the Republican majority voted against a resolution to put a wheel tax on the county ballot.

After that vote, more than a thousand local educators signed a letter calling out the Republican commission coalition.

"The extra hours we put in, often at the expense of our own families, are given because we believe the work we do matters. Teachers do not expect to become wealthy in our line of work, but we do expect a fair wage," the local teachers' letter read.

Right before the pandemic hit in 2020, several members of the group that helped launch Hamilton Flourishing announced that the Good Government Coalition and PAC they founded would be heavily weighing into the 29 local races slated over the next three years.

That year's District 2 school board race got particularly heated, and expensive, as the major news events of that year unfolded, inciting Chattanoogans from right to left.

Tom Decosimo, a prominent local businessman, made no qualms about announcing himself as the Republican choice, in the race, even though it was nonpartisan, but was beat by the teacher PAC backed candidate, Marco Perez, by 1,500 votes.

***

When school board races were nonpartisan, some candidates were not as open about Decosimo about their party politics — he declared his on a billboard on Signal Mountain Road.

But now, there's no mistaking it. Candidates run in a primary, and their party will be printed on the ballot come Aug. 4.

Six Republicans and six Democrats will square off for six seats — plus independent candidates in two of the races.

Jill Black, who is running as a Democrat to represent the new District 11 on the school board, said the political spark that lit inside of her as a college student found kindling when the Hamilton County commission began redistricting last summer.

She had just left her job as a medical social worker to deal with family health issues, but felt compelled to pay attention.

"It is incredibly important who is sitting in those seats," Black, a mother of two elementary-age public school students, said. "When I saw them starting to draw District 11, I thought, that is the most racially and economically diverse district of Hamilton County. That entire district needs good representation. And if the right person doesn't run they could end up with someone that doesn't understand the lived experiences of the entire community."

She told local, Democratic Party officials she wanted to run if someone else didn't speak up, and they came back to her and told her to get ready.

Black, like many of her Democratic colleagues, said she wants schools and teachers to get more funding and support.

"You don't make a system better by abandoning it," she said. "I don't think the answer is more scrutiny and abuse of teachers and librarians who have been completely stretched thin."

Virginia Anne Manson, a longtime admissions officer soon to retire from Baylor School, is also running for the District 11 seat — which will represent Alton Park, East Lake, Eastside, Lookout Valley, Lookout Mountain, Missionary Ridge, and St. Elmo on the school board — as a Republican.

"Some of us are becoming aware of the importance of local issues," said Manson, who was asked to run by local Republican Party and church leaders. "The national politics get so ugly and we don't know what is happening or what is true or what's not. I don't feel like I have a lot of effect there, but I do think it matters here in my community."

Manson, like her conservative peers, is concerned about mission creep at public schools. Schools are engaging in conversations and care once left to family, while failing to prepare a lot of children academically, and parental rights and choices need to be protected, she said.

"There is a growing trend nationally that wants to keep parents out of the academic process, which has hurt the education of our children," Manson's campaign website reads. "Parents know best."

Soon, these two national party perspectives on education reform will be on stage in Chattanooga's local school board general election debates, promising to exacerbate existing tension over mandates, curriculum and funding.

Some more Baptists might go to Baptist schools and others, who can afford to, might retreat to their tribe as a result of escalating conflicts, said Will Newberry, an education consultant hired by parents to help navigate Chattanooga's public and private schooling landscape.

Parents in Chattanooga, which has one of the highest rates of church attendance and Bible reading in the country, have long been wary of worldview, said Newberry, who worked for decades at the city's elite private schools before starting School Solutions of Chattanooga. The majority of the area's private schools are religious, after all.

"Parents less and less see schools as neutral environments for academic learning, and increasing as environments for social and emotional instruction, with less emphasis on pure academics," said Newberry.

Education is now seen as a consumer-based commodity, and current parents, more than ever, expect and desire customization in their lives.

"They want control," he said.

Contact Joan McClane at jmcclane@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6601. Follow her on Twitter @JoanMcClaneCTFP.

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