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Vouchers are likely to return both at the Tennessee General Assembly in 2018 and in the upcoming gubernatorial election. The issue has been debated and discussed for many years across our state. Public school teachers, administrators, superintendents and school boards, especially the members of our organization, are almost universal in opposition. Almost 90% of the children in our state currently attend a public school.   Our organization, Professional Educators of Tennessee, continues to oppose vouchers here in Tennessee.

Politicians across Tennessee, who ran for election or re-election in 2016, ran on one message: Tennessee is on the right track in public education. Nothing has changed. In fact, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) is the largest nationally representative and continuing assessment of what America’s students know and can do in various subject areas. Tennessee is number one in improvement in both English and math for both 4th and 8th grade on the 2012 NAEP test scores and is number one in improvement in science on 2016 test scores. We are on the right track according to state politicians, and referenced in testimony by Economist Art Laffer in the Tennessee General Assembly in 2017.

Here is some additional food for thought:

  • Private schools will eventually be subjected to new regulations. There will, and there should be, strings attached if any school takes taxpayer money. Just look at these quotes: “A public school would become any school that receives students who brought with them public monies” –Lamar Alexander, former Secretary of Education under George Bush.  His words should serve as a warning to all private and parochial schools.
  • There are very limited seats available in accredited private schools. In Florida as vouchers were expanding in 2003, it was discovered that a state of 24 million had less than 5,000 seats in private schools available. Florida was a rapidly growing state and is approximately four times the size of Tennessee. A best estimate is there are only 1200 to 1500 seats available in Tennessee at accredited private schools that may be willing to take a voucher student. We would challenge voucher proponent to produce the statistics of seats available at an accredited private school that would accept a student for a $7,000 voucher.
  • Public Schools are more than a safety net. Many schools serving poor children throughout the United States are overwhelmed by the social needs of the children they serve. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), 15.3 million children under 18 in the United States live in households where they are unable to consistently access enough nutritious food necessary for a healthy life. These 8 states have statistically higher food insecurity rates than the US national average (14.6%): Arkansas (21.2%), Mississippi (21.1%), Texas (18.0%), Tennessee (17.4%), North Carolina (17.3%), Missouri (16.9%), Georgia (16.6%), and Ohio (16.0%). More than 1 in 5 children is at risk of hunger. Among African-Americans and Latinos, it’s 1 in 3 according to the USDA. Our public schools are dealing with this issue, largely without additional resources or even acknowledgment by state and federal officials. Taking money from public schools, either rural or urban districts, will impact that school and community.

It is important that we remind ourselves of the purpose of public education under the Tennessee Constitution: “The state of Tennessee recognizes the inherent value of education and encourages its support. The General Assembly shall provide for the maintenance, support and eligibility standards of a system of free public schools.” Tennessee has a responsibility to ensure the right of all children to a quality education.

Most educators do not support the status quo in public education and strive to raise the bar every day. They understand an engaging and challenging education is the proven path to prosperity and a life-long love of learning. It has long been acknowledged that a strong educational system is essential not only to the successful functioning of a democracy, but also to its future. Therefore, we remain focused on our public schools in Tennessee, the teachers we serve and the students they serve.

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JC Bowman is the Executive Director of Professional Educators of Tennessee, a non-partisan teacher association headquartered in Nashville, Tennessee.  Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the association are properly cited.

Jay ShinThis is a picture that is four years in the making, but to understand the story is really a bond between a student and a trusted teacher. Jay Shin is a senior at Walker Valley High School in the Bradley County School System in Tennessee.  Joel Swartzel is Special Education teacher in the system.

Jay is a bright, articulate student who has a real joy for life. He has an infectious smile and comes to school every day with a carpe diem attitude. He is not the type of kid who let’s things “get him down.” He faces every day with a smile and has that rare type of courage that draws other people to him. He doesn’t allow what you see to define him and when you experience that kind of optimism in the face of cerebral palsy, you know you have a special young man on your hands. This is a glimpse into the Jay Shin part of the story.

Four years ago, a former student teacher at Walker Valley was able to land his dream job. Joel Swartzel is a Special Education teacher, and when Jay’s teaching assistant was absent, Mr. Swartzel stepped in with the daily coordination of Jay’s logistics, getting him to class and assisting him with his needs throughout the day. A friendship began to form between the two, and Jay told Mr. Swartzel he always wanted to wear a costume for the Homecoming week festivities, which includes character day at the school.

Each year, some impediment kept Jay or Mr. Swartzel from being able to dress up for the Homecoming activities. Mr. Swartzel would either have to be off campus on character day for training or Jay didn’t want to be in a suit all day long. He wanted to be Professor X from the X-Men movie. He thought he needed someone to be an X-Man to be with him. Professor X, played by the well-known actor Patrick Stuart is bald, and also is in a wheelchair.

This year, Jay’s senior year, Mr. Swartzel told Jay that if he would wear the suit, he would make sure there was an X-Man to be with him. Little did Jay know, Mr. Swartzel went to the costume store and bought the X man character “Wolverine” costume and a bald skin cap for Jay. On the day of Homecoming Character Day, Jay came to school in a suit and on his way in from the bus, there stood “Wolverine” to take him to class. As you can see, the costume is impressive but you cannot clearly see the face. The only clue is the teacher badge that he wears proudly. From the smile on Jay’s face, you can see that he will never forget this day. I can guarantee the smile on that teacher’s face is just as wide.

The heart of this story is the investment of a teacher into the life of a student. In Tennessee, every day, more than 67,000 teachers walk into our public schools, ready to tackle the responsibilities of investing in the lives of almost a million students. Their time and giving hearts in things big and small are game changers for many young people. And if the truth is told, our students usually inspire us as much as we inspire them.

Joel Swartzel said “Originally I was supposed to be Beast, but I could not find the costume in time. With this being Jay’s last year I was going to do whatever it took to make this happen. Jay is one of those kids that everyone should try to be in life. He is a joy to be around and makes everyone around him smile. When Mr. Swartzel had to opportunity to do for Jay what he does for everyone else, zero chance he was passing that up.” Thank you to Jay Shin for inspiring your teacher.

As educators, we understand this on so many levels. Even though the “rigors of the profession” are great, the moments like this help us remember why we do what we do. We make a difference every day! Thank you Joel Swartzel for reminding us of that!

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JC Bowman is the Executive Director of Professional Educators of Tennessee, a non-partisan teacher association headquartered in Nashville, Tennessee. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the association are properly cited. Follow him on social media via Twitter at @jcbowman.

I had an opportunity to spend a few minutes with Gold Medal winner Jim Craig, goalie from the 1980 USA Hockey Team. His message is one business, education and political leaders should hear. Here were my personal takeaways:

  1. Have a shared dream.
  2. Recruit a great team. You don’t win with talent, you win with people.
  3. Manage through ego and conflict.
  4. Always work hard.
  5. You must make personal sacrifices. Make your weakness your strength.
  6. Don’t be afraid to compete with others.
  7. Be willing to be held accountable.
  8. Stay young in outlook & spirit. Embrace necessary change.
  9. Great teams accomplish more than individuals.

JC Bowman

Jim Craig, like his teammates on the 1980 Olympic Team, continue to motivate people. As he reminded me: Don’t ever let your memories become bigger than your dreams.

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JC Bowman is the Executive Director of Professional Educators of Tennessee. Professional Educators of Tennessee, a non-partisan teacher association headquartered in Nashville, Tennessee. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the association are properly cited.

Tennessee has long been home to many great educators.  In fact many people do not know this, but the movie Dead Poets Society is based on the lives of two teachers at Montgomery Bell Academy in Nashville, Tennessee.

Dead Poets Society makes extensive use of literature.  Shakespeare, Robert Frost, Alfred Lord Tennyson, and Lord Byron, Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau, and even Vachel Lindsay gets a mention.

There are 5 ideas in the movie we can all learn from:

  1. No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world.
  2. You must strive to find your own voice.  Because the longer you wait to begin, the less likely you are to find it at all.
  3. This is a battle, a war, and the causalities could be your hearts and souls.
  4. Sucking the marrow out of life doesn’t mean choking on the bone.
  5. Carpe diem. Seize the Day.  Make your lives extraordinary.

The teacher John Keating, played by the incredibly talented actor and comedian Robin Williams,  was the inspiration for his students. His pursuit of excellence in the classroom made his student’s lives extraordinary.  He taught them to break out of their shells, to pursue their dreams and seize the day.

Critics argue that the teacher really did not allow the opportunity for original thought. Kevin Dettmar for example says, “It’s a freedom that’s often preached but never realized.”  To which I would reply with another quote from Mr. Keating:  “When you read, don’t just consider what the author thinks, consider what you think.”

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JC Bowman is the Executive Director of Professional Educators of Tennessee.  Professional Educators of Tennessee, a non-partisan teacher association headquartered in Nashville, Tennessee.  Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the association are properly cited.

As Shelbyville and Bedford County, as well as Murfreesboro and Rutherford County brace for white supremacist rallies, we anticipate needless conflicts.  We see the “us versus them” attitude that prevents us from collectively working to improve our communities, our state and our nation.  Racism, bigotry and vitriol hate have no place in a modern culture.   All children are created in the image of God.

For centuries, our country has attracted people in search of a share of “the American dream” from all corners of the world. E Pluribus Unum (From Many, One) remains the national motto, yet it appears that there is no longer a consensus about what that should mean. If you step into our public schools today, the many different cultures are on full display.

We reject the creed of bigotry, which is rooted in hate, that any race is superior to another.  We hope protesters, who are likely not even from the state of Tennessee, will choose to stay home and leave our residents and communities free from incurring unnecessary taxpayer expense of an event that the majority of our citizens reject.  More importantly, we hope that racist attitudes and behavior are rejected here in Tennessee, and across the nation.

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