Dear Governor-Elect Lee:
This will be short and sweet.
As a political newcomer, it’s possible you are only peripherally familiar with the battles in and around education. The bloodiest of them are not found in the area of your residence, Williamson County, one of the wealthiest counties in the nation with the second highest performing school district in the state. Further, you may not be familiar with issues that plague large percentages of students in poverty and the inhumane achievement and opportunity gaps between students of color and white students in school districts found in many of the ninety-five Tennessee counties.
Toward that end, please consider the following recommendations during this period of transition:
1. See Families As Investors and Partners
No one invests more in public education than families. They submit to our government their most valuable possession in hopeful exchange for a graduate with the skills and knowledge to compete nationally and globally in academia and the workplace. And contrary to popular belief, families do in fact have hopes and dreams for their kids.
Recommendation: Ask them. Listen to them. Reserve a few seats at The Table and make sure they are always occupied with a diverse cadre of parents and/or guardians.
2. Seek Diversity
Tennessee educates one million public school students in urban, rural, and suburban communities as well as students who resettled here. Public schools are responsible for educating every school-age child that walks through the door. Every. Single. One. Each child different yet common in that each requires and deserves adults who recognize their greatness and set expectations and policies accordingly.
Recommendation: We desperately need more Black and Hispanic teachers throughout the state. We should also see matching diversity in every state department, particularly the department of education. Most importantly, we need the governor’s cabinet to lead by example.
3. We Need Excellent Choices YESTERDAY
Until recently, excellence in public education has been wholly reserved for those with the money and privilege to buy real estate in prime zip codes and students with a lucky lottery ticket. In Nashville and Memphis, class and chance are slowly being replaced by charters and other choices. If parents are giving us the best part of them, we have both a fiduciary and moral obligation to honor their trust by offering a full inventory of excellent schools, irrespective of type.
Please understand, where excellence is not available, children’s lives hang in the balance — for time is not on their side. The admirable goal of 75 percent of third-graders reading on grade level by 2025 is useless for today’s two-thirds of Tennessee students reading below grade level. An eighth grader in 2018 who reads on a fourth-grade level has little to no opportunity to catch up as he’s passed on through high school.
Recommendation: Students need excellent choices now.
4. Bring In Next-Level Leadership
Tennessee must capitalize on the momentum launched by the Bredesen administration and maintained by Governor Haslam, but it appears a standstill is within our reach.
Recommendation: The next commissioner should be as steady and wise as the current Ed czar. But McQueen’s successor must be able to marshal a robust effort to push the state of education to the next level. Neither the push nor reach will be easy or welcomed, so she must possess an ease of collaboration, willingness to listen to an array of stakeholders, and steadfast courage to make hard decisions and act upon them. Most importantly, the next commissioner and her staff of diverse Tennesseans must believe in every child and family, no matter their race, residence or language.
In summary, in our hands, we hold each child’s promise; in their hands, the future of Tennessee.