When meeting with elected leaders tasked with improving education in Tennessee, we have heard a common refrain: “We have to do something.”
In response to public education challenges, our state has tried various “solutions,” almost all of which have involved privatization: vouchers, charter schools, excessive for-profit standardized testing and expensive curriculums.
None of these options has made a sustainable difference. In fact, vouchers and charter schools have made it worse, serving to exacerbate existing inequities in school systems by draining desperately needed funding from the neighborhood schools that serve around 90% of Tennessee’s students. Often, the real impetus behind these privatization efforts is not the well-being of children, but a desire for personal profit. School privatization turns children into commodities and makes markets out of our classrooms. We must do better for Tennessee’s children.
Solutions don’t address root issues
The reason these “solutions” haven’t made any real impact is simple: None address the root of the problem, namely the challenges faced by increasing numbers of Tennessee children who come to school without necessary resources and support at home.
The impact of poverty on learning coupled with the chronic lack of adequate funding for public education in Tennessee is a recipe for disaster. Many of Tennessee’s children, most often those in poverty, have experienced trauma and adverse childhood experiences — some due to the opioid crisis that has ravaged rural communities and others due to the challenges of growing up in low-income urban environments. Many come to school hungry, lacking adequate clothing, necessities that they need to succeed (such as glasses to read), and sometimes even basic hygienic supplies.
Each day, our local schools and teachers must take on the impossible task of trying to address societal failures, but often without the means and support to effectively do so. This has never been more apparent than during the pandemic, which has laid bare the vast inequities within our school systems and communities.
However, there are solutions that instead of draining funds from neighborhood schools would effectively set Tennessee students up for success and simultaneously strengthen our local communities.
First, we must agree to invest in Tennessee’s schools and children. Statewide, Tennessee schools are underfunded by about a billion dollars a year, and our state ranks 45th in the nation in school funding. So many of our educational inequities are caused by lack of proper school funding, and principals and teachers continuously struggle with unfunded state mandates, often providing classroom funds from their own poorly-paid pockets.
Second, widening the reach of Tennessee’s community school model is a proven solution that truly helps children, because it addresses the root cause of low student achievement: the issues that students face outside of school on a daily basis that impact their ability to focus in the classroom. This model allows public schools to comprehensively address the holistic needs of a student population, especially those arising from poverty, by providing wraparound and support services that address students’ basic and social/emotional needs.
Community schools will benefit all students
Because community schools provide a wide range of activities for students and their families, such as community gardens, arts programs, and sometimes even evening meals for families in need, they often become the hub of the community. As a result, children enter school ready to learn, families become more involved with their children’s education, students achieve greater academic success, students benefit from a healthier environment (physically, socially and emotionally), and the communities in which these schools operate become more desirable places to live. In a state that ranks among those with the greatest percentage of low-income students, this model is the answer for Tennessee.
Instead of investing our hard-earned tax dollars in failed school “reforms” that drain money from our neighborhood schools, splinter our communities, and often open the door to corruption and fraud, why don’t we choose to invest directly in our students, families, and teachers? The hundreds of millions of dollars that Tennessee currently spends on flawed school privatization efforts could be repurposed in ways that truly benefit children and their communities. The answer is simple, and it is the moral one. The question is whether we have the collective political will to insist that Tennessee truly puts children, not private interests, first.
Please join Pastors for Tennessee Children for an online discussion of Community Schools on Sept. 29, 2020, at 2:00 CT/3:00 ET at pastorsfortennesseechildren.org/zoom
Rev. Dr. William Terry Ladd III, pastor of First Baptist Church East 8th Street, Chattanooga, is board chairman of Pastors for Tennessee Children. Amy Frogge is executive director of Pastors for Tennessee Children and a former Nashville School Board member.