This past February I had the that opportunity to attend a legislative breakfast hosted by the Tennessee Charter School Center and in it, realized one very important thing- no one there knew what the future looked like regarding charter schools. In this post I will argue that the legislative breakfast suffered from a critical lack of specificity in discussing policies that will shape the future of TN charter schools, both public and private schools, and the entirety of the Tennessee education altogether. This meeting, which occurs annually, was meant to serve as an opportunity for the community to come in and discuss the political climate, outline the legislative agenda of the TCSC, and provide updates on bills to watch. During my time working at the Tennessee General Assembly, I quickly learned that the topic of charter schools and parental choice was a contentious one- and for good reason. Charter schools are schools that are publicly funded but operate under independent contracts. In other words, they are funded by tax payer dollars, but are not subject to the same governance as ordinary public schools.
On March 4 in Governor Bill Lee’s State of the State address, the governor announced plans for his administration to introduce a bill to the legislature reminiscent of the “voucher bill” that has been introduced and denied on multiple occasions in the Tennessee General Assembly. The bill would direct some public funds to be used as vouchers to help mediate the cost of private school- an effort seen as a way to bolster parental choice. Vouchers have often been in the same discussion as charter schools. The most glaring issue with the two being the use of public funds to operate a school that will not necessarily be available to the entire public. Because of the implications of the governor’s stance, I believed that this issue would be raised at the legislative breakfast and hoped to hear the stance that the TCSC would take on the matter. I was both surprised and disappointed to know that it was not even a topic. We saw as far back as December that then governor-elect Lee voiced his support for the controversial measure. And with the State of the State happening less than a month from the legislative breakfast, it seemed a given that it would be a topic of discussion. Instead, we heard from the head of legislative affairs for the TCSC about how they were monitoring bills without any mention of what the specific bills were that they were monitoring. This was interesting to me as even the House Education Committee chairman Mark White was present. The question was raised to the chairman as to how many bills were coming up in committee- which he politely responded “hundreds.” Even when he was allotted his time to speak, he doubled down on his commitment to charter schools without specifying what bills he would support, how, or why. But as an elected official in a room full of constituents, he made it a point to assure everyone that he had the TCSC’s best interest in mind. My immediate thought was, “I really wish that I was one of his constituents.” This is because being at this event raised many flags in my head. The total lack of accountability was jaw-dropping. An elected official stands in front of a group of people, gives them no information regarding what bills he’s seen or where they are in committee, yet claims to have their best interest at heart. This idea seems to be one of the many root causes of democratic backsliding.
This is not to say that he will not support any measures that the TCSC supports, but it leaves much to desired when analyzing the words of someone in the legislature that declares that they would support charter schools- to charter schools. An equally alarming issue with the fact that neither the director of legislative affairs nor the Education chairman offered no specific details, is perhaps the attendees’ reluctance to ask questions regarding the manner in which they are being supported. In the entire hour and a half that I was there, there were probably two questions that had been asked. The reason I raise an eyebrow to this is because this particular group seemed pretty close knit (I was the only one in attendance that did not represent a charter school organization) and it therefore seemed as if it would be easy enough to convey any of their concerns to one another. This showed me that the lack of accountability was not only a vertical issue between constituent and representative, but also a lateral issue between peers. Democracy only works if we are able to hold those of us around us accountable and unfortunately, the TCSC failed to do that. The charter school/voucher/school choice issue is not going away anytime soon. Because of this, we should be seeking all possible questions to keep us up to date on the issues regarding these topics. Apparently, it is not just the public that needs to educate ourselves on what these issues are, but the people who they affect the most- the educators and proponents of these institutions. There is information out there to be found regarding charter schools, vouchers, and how they both will be instrumental to the shaping of our educational structure in the state of Tennessee. It is my hope that moving forward, the information will be divulged and sought out in a more forthcoming and intentional way.