I went to public schools in Hamilton County Tennessee and have been a teacher for 20 years. I know the importance of education in the lives of our students and the impact for our communities. I want each of my students to have a high-quality education in a safe environment that prepares them to succeed as adults. We are letting too many of our students down. We aren’t providing students with an adequate education: particularly students in rural areas and students with special education needs. We aren’t providing a safe environment for students to learn and we are diverting needed public school funding to private schools who don’t meet the standards of public schools.
Strengthen Public Schools
Public schools in Tennessee have been a significant part of my life – where I attended school, my children attended school and where I teach. Tennessee public schools are where I learned that education is the great equalizer. I believe that our education system needs to serve all children in a way that enables them to achieve success – not just the wealthy. Higher education rates are linked to lower crime rates – so educating all of our nation’s children benefits all of us.
- Eliminate Vouchers. A recent, rigorous evaluation showed that students attending voucher schools performed significantly worse than they would have in their original public school. (Center for American Progress: The Highly Negative Impacts of Vouchers)
This doesn’t surprise me, because private schools are not held to the same standards as public schools. When I taught at a private school I was asked to teach subjects out of my area – a practice that would be prohibited in a public school.
- Maintain Public School Funding – The voucher program pulls money out of public schools. Once that money leaves, local districts must make up the shortfall by eliminating needed positions or raising local taxes. Students who are left behind at public schools are left without their basic educational needs met.
States must be accountable for their educational spending. We can’t allow states to withhold money allocated for education. That is stealing money from children.
Our rural school districts are struggling. While Tennessee has focused on improving urban cities, rural schools which educate a third of Tennessee’s students have been overlooked. Many experienced teachers are retiring and districts are struggling to find enough teachers for high school math and science and special education.
- Student loan forgiveness to teachers. Rural schools pay significantly less than urban and suburban schools. We should provide more support to rural school teachers to help them afford to stay with their students.
- Expand Grow Your Own (GYO) programs. GYO programs are a promising strategy that links college with community members. It trains teachers without them having to leave their community.
- Increase funding for Personnel Prep Grants for special education teachers. Finding teachers for special education is difficult everywhere – but particularly in rural communities.
- Create a network of apprenticeships and internships. Rural students have the lowest rate of college enrollment and need other opportunities to link them to jobs. “Earn-and-learn” opportunities (such as traditional and virtual apprenticeships, paid internships, and career and technical education programs for high schoolers) can make sure that there are job training opportunities in our rural counties. Companies that participate in these programs would receive an extra tax deduction for each apprentice or intern who lives in rural or other underserved areas.
- Expansion of Rural Broadband. Children across Tennessee and America now need the internet to keep up in school.Lack of access puts them behind from the start in competing for tomorrow’s jobs.
- Tackling Skyrocketing Student Debt. As the cost of a college degree continues to rise, too many people in Eastern Tennessee find that while they have the qualifications they need, their student debt burdens are unmanageable. I want to work with higher education officials to improve their outreach to a diverse range of students and to lower the cost of attendance. We need to find innovative, non-partisan ways of working with educators, students, parents, and college and university administrators to lessen student debt burdens, while also maintaining the range of educational opportunities available to students.
Focus on School Safety
We need to have an honest discussion about safety. Every time we practice a shooting incident, I see how scared and traumatized my students are by the threat of violence. And after each incident of violence individuals go to their partisan positions but no real changes are being made – so our students feel like it is only a matter of time before it is their school and their friends being shot. There were 45 school shootings in 46 weeks in 2019 – we must do better! We need to have a non-partisan discussion about: facilities, mental health, security staff and procedures, class size, awareness, and guns. We also need to make a non-partisan plan that focuses on evidence-based and expert-endorsed actions that schools can take to address warning signs of violence and to keep shooters out of schools. My goal is to create safe schools, address violence at its earliest stages and block easy access to firearms by those who would do harm:
- Establish threat assessment programs in schools to understand and intervene when a student is a risk to themselves or others;
- Address mental health needs and increase access to mental health counselors
- Smaller class sizes doesn’t just improve instruction, it helps teachers know their students better. Teachers are able to identify each student’s individual issues and increase student involvement leading to higher levels of learning and engagement that make them become more a part of their community.
- Implement basic security upgrades to prevent access to schools and classrooms;
- Modernize buildings to meet today’s issues
- Add security; don’t make teachers carry guns. Research shows that allowing teachers to carry guns in schools increases the risks to children. Teachers are unable to protect students, neutralize a shooter, and not be a risk to themselves and to their students
- Plan in advance for emergencies so staff can immediately lock down schools in order for law enforcement to respond quickly; and
- Establish safe schools to help reduce gun violence.
There are also ways that we can address these issues on a community-wide level.
- Help law enforcement and family members act on warning signs of violence and temporarily prevent access to firearms;
- Responsible firearm storage; and
- Requiring background checks on all gun sales so people exhibiting warning signs, minors, and people with dangerous histories can’t evade our gun laws.
Provide Appropriate Special Education Opportunities
The goal of special education, like all education is to help students reach his or her highest potential as an individual and as a member of society. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act recognizes that disability is a natural part of the human experience and in no way diminishes the right of individuals to participate in or contribute to society. Improving educational results for children with disabilities is an essential element of our national policy of ensuring equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency for individuals with disabilities.
- Fully Funding the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), IDEA and the Americans with Disabilities Act are supposed to guarantee that public schools meet the needs of students with disabilities, which can mean anything from extra time on a test to individual tutoring to mental health counseling. The IDEA also requires that children with disabilities are educated in the “least restrictive environment” possible. When we don’t get this right the results are depressing – 85% of incarcerated youth have a disability but only 37% of them were receiving special education services in school.
IDEA is drastically underfunded. IDEA allows the federal government to fund up to 40% of IDEA – but it is currently only funding 17%. We must increase federal funding and states must fully fund the other 60%. This will allow school districts to hire enough special education teachers and mental health counselors while providing other needed supports.