This week has been proclaimed "School Choice Week" in Tennessee by Gov. Bill Haslam. The Volunteer State joins 26 other states and 210 mayors across the nation in recognizing the need to optimize education to meet the needs of our children rather than protect the "system" that continues to fail too many.
Haslam noted in his proclamation, "Tennessee recognizes the essential role that an effective and accountable system of education plays in preparing children to be successful adults. School Choice Week raises the awareness of the importance of education options."
Simply put, the "system of education" is neither effective nor accountable because of protections in place that provide cover for mediocre to failing teachers and institutions. Otherwise known as teachers unions, these organized labor unions disproportionately serve the status quo in a system, which is not acceptable.
Most teachers are true champions in the trenches who work to equip our children. They, without question, are to be held harmless for factors outside of their control, such as the failure of parents to engage and have their children prepared for the classroom. These teachers are also not to be held accountable for the less than 54 percent of school funding that actually reaches the classroom.
Based on 2013 data, the Beacon Center of Tennessee published a report showing a declining sum of funding that touches students and teachers while administrators have grown exponentially. The research noted, "Since 2000, the number of administrators in Tennessee's education system has grown by 34.5 percent, while the number of teachers has increased by less than 17 percent, and the number of students has grown by just 7 percent." Of no surprise, during that same window, the salaries of administrators have dramatically outpaced teachers'.
Teachers' union, indeed.
As "School Choice Week" is observed, the islands of public school educational excellence are inadequate to provide an educated and prepared workforce to meet the needs of Tennessee's growing economy.
Last summer, FedEx CEO Fred Smith fielded a question at Chattanooga's Chamber of Commerce lunch about public education from an employer's view. His response was direct and pointed: "We're not producing the type of students we need for the 21st-century workforce — period. Monopolies tend to gravitate to the lowest common denominator. I strongly believe the most important thing that makes FedEx better every day is competition."
Just last Wednesday, however, the stars aligned in the House Subcommittee on Finance, Ways and Means for a bill that has passed the state Senate for three years and was supported by Haslam. HB 1049, Senate Bill 999. sponsored by state Rep. Bill Dunn and state Sen. Todd Gardenhire, narrowly provides parents of children in failing schools who also qualify for free/reduced school lunches an "opportunity scholarship" to attend another public school or toward tuition at a private school. The value of the "voucher" would be $6,400, the state's contribution to the almost $10,000 per pupil expenditure for public school students.
The critics of school choice most often claim damage is done to the poorest students. Yet, this bill is written to specifically benefit the poorest students in failing schools.
Yes, it's National School Choice week. Tennessee currently only has school choice if you are financially able to pay your taxes into the public system while paying tuition to a private institution. Maybe next year there will be other choices.
Robin Smith, a former chairwoman of the Tennessee Republican Party, is owner of Rivers Edge Alliance.