Lamar Alexander, elected five times by Tennesseans to be their governor and United States senator, has been out of office only eight months, and it seems some members of the state House already have forgotten what he preached about education for nearly the last 30 years.
"Such decisions," he wrote in 1992, about a national school board concept being touted, "belong with communities, parents, teachers, and local school boards. A federal recipe book dictating how to operate a local school does not make schools better."
Within the last decade, as Alexander shaped the Every Student Succeeds Act and other legislation, he would remind anyone who would listen that the best education decisions are made closest to the students involved.
But today state House members want the state to step in and decide that some of those decisions shouldn't be made at the local level.
A letter sent to Gov. Bill Lee and backed by all Republican House members asks him to call a special legislative session to "curtail the overreach by independent health boards and officials, confirm a parent's right to make decisions that impact the mental and physical health of their children, provide support and direction to schools to ensure educators are properly compensated for COVID-19 leave and protect all Tennesseans from misdirected mandates designed to limit their ability to make their own decisions."
The basic issue at hand is whether a school board can require students to wear masks to protect themselves and their classmates from the potential spread of COVID-19, the delta variety of which is currently raging within the state.
Locally, on Wednesday, the Hamilton County Schools district said it would require students to wear masks indoors, reversing a previous pronouncement that masks would be optional. Superintendent Dr. Bryan Johnson said the district has continued to monitor advice from medical and public health experts and opted to heed the recommendation for masks by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the local health department and local physicians.
Although the masks will be mandated regardless of vaccine status, parents will be able to opt out their child through a form on the district's online parent portal.
The House members' letter came after a group of Williamson County parents became angry Tuesday when that county's school board voted 7-3 to require a mask mandate at elementary schools. Previously, House Speaker Cameron Sexton had cited school boards in Nashville, Memphis and Shelby County for overstepping their authority and requiring masks.
We have previously suggested high school students, where the virus is more easily spread, wear masks, and that they be recommended but optional for younger children. Let's be clear. No one wants to wear masks, especially after the long-awaited vaccines gave us the freedom to ditch them for several months.
But the delta variant of the virus has brought new realities. It is easier spread, it affects children more than the original virus did and children are getting sicker from it than they did from the original virus.
Just as with COVID-19 in March 2020, we don't know everything about the variant, how it will react over the long term and what other variants are out there. And the mandate can be quickly removed if the virus fades.
We do know that vaccines, now only available for adults and children over 12, help. The sooner more eligible people get them, the sooner the virus will fade.
But a special session in which legislators begin to reserve for themselves decisions that previously have been granted to local school districts is worrisome. Unlike with their determination earlier this year to forbid the teaching of critical race theory concepts, forbidding mask mandates, for instance, is not one-size-fits-all. While the virus may not be as virulent in some rural counties, it may be highly active in others. Not being able to take action in this instance, or with any virus in the future, could be catastrophic for some districts.
And would they forbid masks, or would those parents who want their children to wear them still have that option? Would they prevent schools from mandating COVID vaccines once they are given full FDA approval? Current law, after all, mandates several vaccinations for children upon entering public school.
Might they also take a whack at other school requirements like dress codes? Local social media is atwitter with a letter sent to school board members saying if parents can opt out from having their child wear a mask, couldn't they also opt out of uniforms?
It's a lot for legislators to consider — if Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, the Senate speaker, and Lee are interested in calling such a session. We hope they won't and will leave the decisions where the well-regarded Alexander always said they ought to be — with the authorities closest to the student.