Dear Senator Alexander,
As a former School Board member in Franklin County and professor of Classics at the University of the South, I am writing this afternoon to ask you to vote against Betsy DeVos, President Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Education.
I realize this request comes at a time when you and your staff are inundated with constituent phone calls against Mrs. DeVos–earlier today, I tried to call your offices in Chattanooga and Nashville and was unable to get through. Those reaching you have already noted her lack of genuine experience and information about public education, her devotion to the failed concept of for-profit schools, her dubious connections to homophobic “conversion therapy” groups, the very obvious pay-for-play nature of her family’s campaign contributions to the Republican party, et cetera, so I will pass these things over.
Let me instead focus on one thing you and I both know to be true about primary- and secondary-school public education in Tennessee.
Schools in Tennessee are woefully underfunded. Our state does not have an income tax, which means the system of funding for schools is convoluted and byzantine. Most of the money comes from the state through the Basic Education Plan (BEP) which, by design, is never sufficient, so that the remaining funds have to be be supplied locally to show they have “skin in the game.” In wealthy communities like your own in Nashville, this makes sense. But I spent a good deal of my time in term (2010-14) in Franklin County fighting with our county commissioners for a moderate property tax increase; understandably, the commissioners are loath to raise taxes even a little bit when they know there are candidates willing to run against them on a no-tax promise. Consequently, all most commissioners ever want to talk about is cuts, and if the BEP didn’t mandate raises from time to time, our teachers’ salaries would be frozen or slashed every single year. This is the system we have, for good or ill, as you well know. What Mrs. DeVos represents, with her out-of-touch devotion to so-called “school choice,” would be a further drain on funding for education.
Senator Alexander, you and I both know that the $2000 vouchers the President is supporting for those under the federal poverty line will not go very far in alleviating the problem of underfunded schools. We can predict that, if Mrs. DeVos is confirmed, many for-profit schools in poorer areas will pop up for a while and then fail, while those who stay in traditional schools will have to make do with even deeper budget cuts. Students in Tennessee, who have been subjected to far too many educational experiments under both the Race to the Top and No Child Left Behind initiatives, can hardly afford any more trial-and-error management of our state’s schools. Siphoning off funds for charters schools is not the answer, and will in fact deepen the problem.
And how do I know this won’t work? Because that is what the teachers are saying. You know, the ones on the front lines, the ones who have dedicated themselves to educating young people across our state. The ones, by the way, who have protesting outside your office now all month. Every so often, when I was in doubt about matters of policy, I would go sit in the teachers’ lunch room at Sewanee Elementary to get their views. Every time I did so, I learned a lot. I urge you to get out of the Capitol and do the same.
As I always used to say when I was on the school board, public education is not about my kids or your kids, or anybody in particular’s kids. Public education is about an educated public. If you happen to be in the hospital and a nurse has to give you a shot, you hope that he or she knows the difference between .5 and .05–at that moment, you hope somebody gave that person a good education. Multiply that same hope by every transaction you have on a daily basis. This is what public education is about ultimately: knowing that we can trust one another’s level of knowledge so we can go about building our society and living our lives. It’s a messy business, educating the public, and it doesn’t respond well to libertarian ideas of the free market, but at the end of the day, there is no greater investment we can make, both for our families and for our state.
Professor Christopher M. McDonough
Department of Classical Languages
University of the South
735 University Avenue
Sewanee, TN 37383