Tennessee - where we’re always the first to jump out of the plane, because we skip the line where they’re handing out parachutes. This time we are - once again - in the news because of education. Our legislature has spent two weeks discussing the possibility of rejecting almost $2 billion of federal education funding, which would make us the first state to ever do so - because federal money comes with “burdensome stipulations” such as paperwork. When educators brought before the panel were questioned about which stipulations felt burdensome to them, they couldn’t think of any. They did say that education needs more money, not less. About 10 percent of students are directly affected by the federal funds under discussion, mostly low-income kids and students with disabilities. It is worth noting that no parents or local advocacy groups were allowed to speak… but two out-of-state conservative groups were.
One argument is that Tennessee has a pretty sizable treasury surplus and could make up the difference in much of the federal funding lost if this goes through. This raises the question: what could the state accomplish if they used part of that surplus on top of the federal funding to improve education? They could pay teachers more, provide incentives for people to become teachers in the first place (which is increasingly hard to convince people in red states to do nowadays, as teachers are treated like third-class citizens), replace some of the state funding withdrawn from higher education over the last couple of decades, or maybe even replace some of the classroom libraries our laws have bullied and intimidated teachers into removing. I don’t know about you, but, if I were a public-school teacher, I would feel far more burdened by the oppressive and ridiculous education laws passed by our state legislature the last few years than I would by any federal mandates. Public school teachers I’ve talked to are terrified to breathe funny for fear it might hurt someone’s feelings and get them fired.
Could it be that the “burdensome stipulations” of the federal government includes things like diversity programs, academic freedom, and education standards that reflect the truth of our history (and our present) and recognizes that there are a lot of different kinds of people in America and that’s all right, rather than the politicized, propagandistic, majority wishful thinking that our Republican legislators prefer? Could it be that many Republican politicians would like to have even more power to control what teachers teach and how they teach it, and what kinds of people are benefited by various educational programs, without the federal government being able to interfere - and they’re willing to shoot themselves (and all of us, and our kids) in the foot to do so? And what happens when there is an economic downturn in Tennessee (no bubble lasts forever) and all that surplus disappears? That is a second barrel waiting to shoot their (and our) other foot.
Notice that it is not educators asking for this to be done. Educators’ voices, in fact, are being ignored - as they always are. I’ll keep saying it as long as I have breath left in my lungs: leave teachers alone and let them to their jobs, which they are trained to do (and you are not), and give them all the financial support they need to do that job effectively. Because it is the single most important job in this country - our whole future depends on it. For all the folks out there who want one political party to have absolute control of what your kids are exposed to, for fear it may be something you don’t like, consider this: one day those kids will be applying to colleges, grad schools, or jobs in other states with more opportunities… and they’ll be woefully unprepared to compete against kids from states where the teachers are supported and students are allowed to learn.
--Troy D. Smith, a White County native, is a novelist and a history professor at Tennessee Tech and serves on the executive committee of the Tennessee Democratic Party. His words do not necessarily represent TTU.
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