Cook: Better schools won't fix Hamilton County

Cook: Better schools won't fix Hamilton County

June 23rd, 2019 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Bryan Johnson, left, and County Mayor Jim Coppinger stand together during a meeting of the Rotary Club of Chattanooga at the Chattanooga Convention Center on Thursday, June 20, 2019, in Chattanooga, Tenn. Coppinger and Johnson spoke about the county's school budget at the meeting.

Photo by Doug Strickland /Times Free Press.

David Cook

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse /Times Free Press.

On Wednesday, Hamilton County leaders will vote on a budget that includes a property tax rate hike to additionally fund public schools.

I believe the tax will pass.

Will and should.

Beginning this fall, we will see gains and blessings. Our schools will be better.

They may even become great.

But they will not solve all that we ask.

That's because school improvement can only go so far.

We must see this property tax increase for what it is — and for what it is not.

For so long, I have believed that funding education was the single best societal investment.

I'm no longer certain that is true.

The greatest game-changer in Hamilton County is not education.

It's money.


Family wealth.

"Even the most thoughtful and well-intentioned school-reform program can't improve educational outcomes if it ignores the single greatest driver of student achievement: household income," writes Nick Hanauer in The Atlantic's "Better Schools Won't Fix America."

Hanauer's must-read essay is a gut-punch to a long-held yet misguided shibboleth: great schools are the best medicine for all societal ills.

He calls this belief "educationism," and for years, he was an evangelical, helping create the League of Education Voters, working with Bill Gates (a recent visitor to our city) and committing his life to the core belief: improve public schools and good things will follow.

"Graduation rates and wages would increase, poverty and inequality would decrease, and public commitment to democracy would be restored," he writes.

It hasn't worked.

Americans are more educated than ever. Ninety percent of Americans have a high school diploma or its equivalent. Hamilton County graduation rates are the highest in years.

Unemployment rates are among the lowest.

Yet poverty remains entrenched.

Because wages are stagnant.

"Americans are more highly educated than ever before, but despite that, and despite nearly record-low unemployment, most American workers — at all levels of educational attainment — have seen little if any wage growth since 2000," he writes.

Post-tax corporate profits have doubled. Pre-tax income for the wealthiest has doubled. Yet salaries and wages go nowhere. Hanauer says our economic system reroutes more than $2 trillion annually from middle-class pockets to the wealthy elite and corporations.

Even with the most generous funding, schools cannot undo that.

"Schooling may boost the prospects of individual workers, but it doesn't change the core problem, which is that the bottom 90 percent is divvying up a shrinking share of the national wealth," he writes. "Fixing that problem will require wealthy people to not merely give more, but take less."

Low wages means that even though a child may attend a highly functioning school, he or she may return home to neglected cupboards, polluted neighborhoods and the steady absence of middle-class things: regular vacations and trips beyond county lines, healthy food, appointments with therapists, dentists and tutors, the safety net of a savings account.

We assume that by remaking our schools — via a tax increase — we will create a more educated population, which leads to more jobs and money.

That's backward.

It is the money — middle-class wages — that comes first, Hanauer says, then good schools follow.

"Great public schools are the product of a thriving middle class, not the other way around. Pay people enough to afford dignified middle-class lives, and high-quality public schools will follow," he writes.

If we want to solve the triple evils in Hamilton County — our rich-poor gap, racism and violence — then it is our economic model that must be overhauled, not our schools.

Let me be clear so that this message is not misused: I believe this county owes its students and schools multiple tax increases.

Yet expecting too much of this property tax increase will curse all future ones to follow. When schools improve moderately but not magically, told-you-so critics will condemn future funding. Look, they'll say, that 2019 tax didn't do enough. We aren't flourishing.

Hamilton County's flourishing will come when families have sturdy incomes that allow flourishing.



Middle-class money.

"We must provide high-quality public education, sure, but also high-quality housing, health care, child care, and all the other prerequisites of a secure middle-class life," Hanauer writes. "And most important, if we want to build the sort of prosperous middle-class communities in which great public schools have always thrived, we must pay all our workers, not just software engineers and financiers, a dignified middle-class wage."

David Cook writes a Sunday column and can be reached at