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Governor Lee’s Silence Speaks Volumes

JC Bowman

BY JC Bowman

Special to The Enterprise

Recently I was shown a video by Phil Williams from Channel 5 in Nashville. As I watched the recording of Larry Arnn and Tennessee Governor Bill Lee, I became infuriated. This was not about charter schools or Hillsdale College. This was an attack on public schools, teachers, and Colleges of Education.

Mr. Arnn has a clear disdain for public educators. “Anybody can do it.”  He had zero Confidence in Colleges of Education. “They are the dumbest part of every college” and “teachers are trained in the dumbest parts of the dumbest colleges in the country.” He claims public education enslaves students. “The heart of modern education is enslavement.”  Arnn made unnecessary comments related to diversity. The public outcry has united Tennesseans from all corners of the state.

Larry Arnn’s comments are reprehensible and irresponsible. What was even more hurtful than Arnn’s comments is that Tennessee Governor Bill Lee sat there while educators, Colleges of Education, and public education were disparaged. Lee’s silence spoke volumes. Lee then told the audience that this “vision for educating children … is a vision that Tennesseans will embrace.” I disagree.

Governor Lee should know better. His wife, our first lady Maria Lee, has a degree in education and is a former teacher and coach. In our state 83 percent of the teachers are women. Teachers have the greatest impact on student achievement. Teaching is a science, an art, and a craft. It is not for everyone. Most people do not want the responsibility, stress, low salary, or long hours. Parents do not just want anyone instructing their child.

Colleges of Education are vital for teacher preparation, every child deserves an effective teacher in their classroom. They are key partners in developing and strengthening K–12 education. They must identify and recruit future teachers and graduate them as certified teachers to meet the licensure requirements set by the state. We need them now more than ever because veteran teachers are quitting the profession.

Teachers must pass an entrance requirement, maintain a certain GPA, and pass an exit exam to become certified. Licensure is the function of the state and the gatekeeper to employment. Tennessee Association of Colleges for Teacher Education stated, “Arnn’s divisive rhetoric undercuts efforts to recruit individuals into the profession during a time when teachers are desperately needed.”

Unlike most Tennessee Colleges and Universities, Michigan-based Hillsdale College avoids federal rules and regulations because they forgo federal aid. This makes an apple-to-apple comparison impossible. But Arnn and Lee want our tax dollars to open Hillsdale charter schools in our state. That seems hypocritical. The Tennessee Charter School Center stated explicitly that Arnn’s comments “do not in any way reflect the views or opinions of Tennessee public charter schools, leaders, parents, educators, or operators.”

Educators or Colleges of Education are not the problems. They certainly are not “dumb.” Teachers contend with an array of student challenges — substandard housing, homelessness, inadequate nutrition and food insecurity, lack of access to health care, unsafe neighborhoods, and schools with limited resources. This may be unfamiliar territory to Mr. Arnn and Governor Lee.

Finally, we should embrace our diversity. America, like our Judeo-Christian heritage, is reflected by different ethnicities, genders, opinions, and experiences. Our Declaration of Independence reminds us we are ALL created equal and endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights.

Public education is not perfect. The governance of public schools is a complex issue that includes different government entities at the local, state, and federal levels. Attacking public education with words like enslavement and despotism is unjustifiable. Teachers do not create the standards, choose the curriculum, or buy the textbooks. Educators teach students how to think, not what to think. We want parent engagement. In the end, we want ALL our students to succeed, wherever they are educated.

In a state as diverse as Tennessee, we should want citizens to learn to live and work together. We must also work together to educate ALL our children in Tennessee. Most importantly, we must support and praise our educators for being the tireless beacons that they are.

Editor’s note: JC Bowman is the Executive Director of Professional Educators of Tennessee, a non-partisan teacher association headquartered in Nashville, Tennessee. 

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