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Editorial: Let's all play by the same educational rules

(This is a response by PCSS Director Corby King to Gov. Bill Lee's Education Freedom Scholarship Act)

I agree with Governor Lee’s statement, "Access to high-quality education has the power to change the trajectory of a child's life forever.” Our public schools provide that access and opportunity for all children. We have excellent public schools and teachers in Putnam County who carry out the daily mission of providing “Outstanding, first-rate instruction and support for every student in our district.” Our public funding should bolster and support the programs we provide in our public schools. Sending the funding to other sources sends the message that they can provide better services. What metrics will determine the better service provider? 

The General Assembly and the U.S. Department of Education stress the importance of school accountability. As public educators, we know all too well the accountability measures we are expected to meet. Ask any public school educator, and they can share how much time they spend reviewing, analyzing, and meeting to discuss their classroom or school data regarding their students' academic achievement and growth. The accountability measures placed on schools are federal and state requirements. 

I get it. Billions of state and federal dollars are spent annually on public schools. Most communities spend most of their tax dollars on public schools. With that investment, I understand the desire for accountability. When we spend public funds, it's crucial to ensure everyone is held accountable to the same standards. Homeschools and private schools that receive public funds, including student vouchers, should be obligated to adhere to the same accountability measures. Public funds are allocated based on student enrollment. The third and fourth-grade promotion requirements, TCAP testing, EOC testing, graduation credit requirements, ACT testing, Ready-Graduate indicators, and A-F letter grades should follow suit. The metrics and the results should be the same for public and non-public schools.

We have two options to ensure accountability for those who receive public funds. The first option is to establish a universal accountability system for all recipients. The second option is acknowledging that their local communities already hold public schools accountable. Our public schools are held accountable by locally elected school board members representing their constituents.

As a parent of two public school children, educator, and leader of an excellent public school system within an amazing, supportive community, I suggest taking a novel approach to education and supporting our public schools. Recognize the outstanding work and accomplishments that our public schools and teachers attain daily. A good start would be removing the testing and accountability requirements to match the requirements of non-public schools and allowing the parents and teachers to determine what is best for students. Use standardized tests to support students, not assess the effectiveness of a school or teacher. We could continue to take TCAP tests at the end of the year and provide the results to parents. Allow parents to use the tests to determine how well their children progress academically. When students are ready for more rigorous coursework to prepare them for postsecondary opportunities, allow parents and schools to work together and use standardized tests to determine their educational pathway. When students struggle, enable parents and schools to work together to develop a plan to place them on an appropriate path for their abilities and interests. Allow parents and schools to determine what supports are necessary for a student to achieve their postsecondary goals. Allow schools and communities to work together and provide opportunities for students to enter the workforce and be successful adults.

As responsible leaders in Tennessee, we should prioritize our public schools by allocating surplus public funds to support them. Instead of discussing vouchers or rejecting federal funds, let's use the available funds to increase the salaries of our faculty and staff members so that we can attract the best professionals in the field. We should also raise their wages, allowing them to afford their basic needs and provide for their families without working multiple jobs. Additionally, we should increase the maintenance and facilities budgets of deteriorating schools so that our students can learn and grow in a conducive environment. We should use the excess funds to support extra-curricular activities, eliminating the need for parents and families to fundraise throughout the year for uniforms, equipment, bleachers, and maintenance of fields, gymnasiums, or auditoriums. Finally, we should ensure that all students can access elementary, middle, and high school fine arts programs by using the surplus funds.

It's important to note that our public schools are not failing. While I support parent choice and recognize the need for multiple options that best meet the needs of students and families, we must also acknowledge that many outstanding homeschooling and private school families in Putnam County want the same thing for their children that we want for ours in the public school system. We all share the same goal of providing our children with greater opportunities than we had and ensuring they become successful and productive members of society. Rather than diverting public funds to families for alternative education options, let's focus on ensuring our public schools receive the funding and support they need to provide “Access to a high-quality education.” 

Let’s all play by the same rules.