The People v. Senate Education Committee

Far too often the entrenched political machinery of the Tennessee Education Association teachers’ union is given more clout and more voice by some legislators than is given to the parents with children in the worst schools.

The Scott Brown election saw the people of Massachusetts speak loud and clear when it came to not allowing the entrenched political machinery in their state speak for them. Perhaps Washington politicians will “hear” and give more regard to the people who elect them. But it seems that message didn’t trickle down to everyone in Tennessee state government last week.

In Massachusetts, the Democrats have dominated the political landscape for years. They have no Republican members in their delegation to the U.S. House. They have had no Republican U.S. Senator since 1972. Yet that part of the political machinery in Massachusetts that had been “in charge” for so long could not “control” the people this time.

Another part of the political machinery had been the unions. They came out strongly for Democratic candidate Martha Coakley, but there sure were a lot of pictures of rank and file union members in union T-shirts campaigning for her opponent, Scott Brown.

The message of Scott Brown that seemed to resonate with the people was, “This is not Ted Kennedy’s seat; it is your (the people’s) seat.” And for at least this one election, the people took their seat back from what we might say were the entrenched political players in their state.

Tennessee’s Own Problem with Entrenched Unions

One political player in Tennessee that has been entrenched for almost forever is the Tennessee Education Association (TEA). From their position of power they have even gotten the Legislature to make specific reference to their specific union in state law, ignoring the fact that there is another teacher representative organization in Tennessee. In fact, the Legislature has given the Tennessee Education Association some legal advantages over an alternative teacher organization that helps make sure that other organization can’t grow as easily.

In view of this, at least some on the Hill believe that the Tennessee Education Association would be better named the Tennessee Teachers Association, as it sometimes seems more interested in protecting the current educational system for the benefit of teachers than it is about improving education itself.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Teachers are certainly entitled to have an organization looking out for their professional interests just like any other group that wants to have their interests looked out for in the state.

And you can’t really fault the TEA for the clout they have in Nashville. They only have the clout that legislators give them. But here’s the thing: Legislators only have the clout we let them have. Last week saw a visible demonstration of people vs. the “system.”

Thanks, but No Thanks

It began when newly seated Sen. Brian Kelsey (R-Shelby County) sponsored a bill to start an “opportunity scholarship program” for students in the 10 worst performing schools in Memphis. Memphis has the most number of low performing schools of any school system in Tennessee. And most of those schools are in urban areas and serve low income families who cannot afford private schools or housing in more “upscale” neighborhoods that might have a better school. The bill would have allowed students in those schools who are from lower income families to take the money the state is sending to Memphis to educate that student and use it to attend another private or public school.

Sen. Kelsey’s bill was heard on Wednesday by the Senate Education Committee, and I was asked to speak on its behalf. As I spoke to the committee about the merits of giving a measure of educational freedom and opportunity to parents who, because of their economic situation, had children trapped in one of the 10 worst schools in the city, I could see and feel a sense of “dead on arrival.”

Now, the bill was not dead because there were some things that needed to be fixed or needed to be clarified. No, it was dead because a majority of the committee members present simply was not interested in getting answers to TEA’s objections or fixing their concerns or offering amendments to clarify any ambiguities. In fact, Sen. Kelsey offered an amendment to reduce the number of students who would be eligible to just those in the three worst schools. Even that amendment couldn’t garner a majority of the votes. Ultimately, by a begrudging one-vote majority, the Senate Education Committee approved an amendment allowing the parents of students at the one worst school to have some choice in their child’s education. And as amended down to just one school, the bill was sent to the Senate Finance Committee for further consideration.

Committee members were given information about studies by the Friedman Foundation showing that not one of the 17 empirical studies done on such programs in other states had found that those programs had hurt public education. In fact, they were told that 16 studies showed the programs had a positive impact on public education, and one study found that the program had no effect on public education. Yet there was no interest among those who did not vote for the bill in learning more about the issues or exploring how the proposed program might work.

In fact, in opposing the bill, one Senator said that her children had gotten a good education through the public schools in Memphis, as if her experience meant that parents with students stuck in the worst schools would have the same happy outcome. The fact is those students are not having the same happy outcome—that’s why they are the worst schools. Unless my logic is wrong, “worst schools” doesn’t equal “best schools.” The existence of one or more good schools in a school system doesn’t mean all the schools in the system are good or that children in the worst schools shouldn’t be given the same opportunity as other students to go to a good school. But that kind of logic too often prevails when citizens don’t know what is going on and can’t challenge it.

More Clout Given to Teachers than to Parents?

My point is that far too often the entrenched political machinery of the Tennessee Education Association is given more clout and more voice by some legislators than is given to the parents with children in the worst schools. But the union has a PAC which gives money to and makes endorsements of legislators, while the parents of children in these schools … well, I doubt they even knew that some legislators, including ones from Memphis, were deciding for them that their children didn’t deserve a better chance for an education.

But maybe some day, like in Massachusetts, enough parents will get the information they need to let their voice be heard over the powers that be and will say “Enough … you represent us, ‘the people.’ ”