By TEA President Beth Brown
During a recent meeting, a legislator declared that Tennessee’s public schools are “a system of education that makes children a profit center.”
I fancy myself a fairly astute person, but I am still having trouble understanding on what grounds this legislator is basing this wholly inaccurate statement.
First, the statement was offered as support for this legislator’s belief that Tennessee should adopt an ESA voucher program, which—by design—would allow taxpayer dollars to pay for private education at for-profit schools. Even without this context, however, the claim is completely nonsensical.
If public education was a profit scheme as suggested by this legislator, teachers wouldn’t earn 19% less than similarly skilled and educated professionals, as has been reported by the Economic Policy Institute. Moreover, inflation has eroded any salary increases awarded by the state over the past several years. (And don’t get me started on those of us who haven’t even seen those increases make it to our paychecks!)
If public education was a profit scheme as suggested by this legislator, teachers would not be spending hundreds—even thousands—of dollars out of pocket annually to provide for their students. I invite anyone in the General Assembly to visit a Tennessee public school and attempt to find a classroom in which the teacher hasn’t spent significant amounts of their personal money on supplies for their classroom. We provide food for students who are hungry, and we provide shoes, coats, and other clothing items for students who have need. We pay for pencils, paper, dry erase markers, and other classroom supplies out of our own pockets because what the state supplies is simply inadequate. And I, as well as many of my colleagues, have purchased lesson plans from educators via Teachers Pay Teachers because we don’t have the academic resources that we need to adequately do our jobs. None of these choices—all made in the best interests of our students—is creating any sort of profit for public schools or public school educators.
If public education was a profit scheme as suggested by this legislator, Tennessee wouldn’t be facing a teacher shortage. The U.S. Department of Education reports that nearly 50% of new teachers leave the profession within the first five years. In Tennessee, 20% of educators have fewer than two years of teaching experience. Moreover, if public education was a profit scheme, educators wouldn’t be working two and sometimes even three jobs to provide for our own families.
Educators’ vehement opposition to an ESA voucher scheme and our calls for increased funding for Tennessee’s public schools come down to this: Tennessee’s funding model is inadequate. No one chooses this profession with the goal of getting rich; we choose this profession because we love kids and want to help them grow and succeed.
Educating our children is not about profit. We take every student, regardless of income or ability, and we work tirelessly every single day to maximize the effect of the resources that we are given. Quite frankly, we’re doing a fantastic job and should be lauded—rather than demeaned and undercut—by the people charged by our state Constitution to provide a free public education for all Tennessee students.