Education

The Tennessee District 1 election pits two doctors against each other—me, the Democratic nominee and my Ob/Gyn colleague Dr. Phil Roe. Interestingly, the original meaning of the word “doctor” is “teacher”—and even when the word is applied to physicians, that original meaning still holds because much of what I do is help people learn about their health.

The universal right to a free, accessible, and appropriate public education is essential to the functioning of our society—not just for jobs and our economy, but also because educated and involved citizens are the foundation of a strong democracy.

The federal government has participated in higher education since the mid-1800s when it began helping states establish so-called “land grant” universities to promote agriculture and engineering. Our great University of Tennessee is a land-grant institution.

At lower levels, up through high school, education traditionally has been most closely tied to local communities. That began to change in the 1960s when the federal government began offering incentives to help local school systems. At first this focused on serving children from poor and disadvantaged backgrounds. But since that time, the role of the federal government has grown—some say it has grown too much—and I believe the conversation today needs to be about finding the right balance.

For example, when I travel the district, too many teachers tell me of their frustrations instead of their satisfactions. They frequently feel that they are forced by the system to use a cookie cutter approach for every student instead of using their skills to adapt to the individual needs of each student. I’m told that in some cases, up to 10 percent of the school year is spent in testing or preparation for mandatory tests. In the past, bipartisan support has existed to take a look at reducing testing requirements. This is a course of action I definitely believe should be considered.

Local communities, parents, and grandparents naturally want a strong voice in how their children and grandchildren are educated. This is true no matter where the money comes from, and no matter what kind of school is selected as best for an individual child.

And that brings us to another controversial topic—school vouchers. The current education secretary, Betsy DeVos, is a champion of school voucher programs, even though her own home state, like most states, has constitutional restrictions on using public money for non-public institutions. Most professional educators believe that school voucher programs weaken public schools. At worst, vouchers can be used to divert money from educating children into the coffers of for-profit corporations. There is in fact, only one federal school voucher program, located in Washington, D.C. Congressman Roe voted for this program, but the evidence is significant that the program is ineffective.

I do not support school voucher programs personally, but respect the fact that local communities have the right to decide how to use their educational funds. In my view, the federal government should not inflict voucher programs on any communities, and I will vote to oppose federal meddling of any kind that weakens public schools.

My opponent, Congressman Roe, serves on the House of Representatives Committee on Education and the Workforce. Although Congressman Roe frequently touts his efforts on the Veterans Affairs committee, he rarely mentions his work on the Education and Workforce committee. I agree that veterans deserve, and have earned, significant attention, but the education of our children also requires major efforts. Only about 3 percent of Congressman Roe’s press releases refer to education. Education is an area of significant difference between me and Congressman Roe. I’ve listened to the teachers and parents and students in our district, but Congressman Roe has received a score of 0 percent support from the legislative priorities of the National Education Association for the years 2015-17.

When I reflect on my own public school education, I consider the many teachers who exerted positive influences on my life. I want today’s students to have the same opportunities I did and I want today’s teachers to have the satisfaction of seeing their students excel.

My mother was a schoolteacher, one sister is a schoolteacher, various aunts, uncles, and cousins all are, or were, public school teachers. I strongly believe that public schools must be the pillar of the American educational system. Many of us are fortunate to be able to fondly recall individual teachers who made our lives better. We need to make sure today’s teachers have the tools they require to inspire their students, the children of our region, toward educational excellence so these students can thrive in the economy and world of the future.