Rep. Pitts Stands Up for Public Education, Teachers

Rep. Joe Pitts made the following speech in a House Education Committee meeting during the debate on HB 0190, the private school voucher bill. Please take the time to read through his remarks and share them with your colleagues, friends and family.

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Thank you Mr. Chairman.  As my colleagues know I am not usually given to speeches on issues but the events of the past few weeks on this issue compel me to speak out.  I cannot be silent any longer.

I have taken care to parse my words so not to sound judgmental or to leave even the appearance of judgment.

The very definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over, but expecting a different result.  I believe the bill before us repeats the same mistakes we are currently making in our education policy.

The bill before us, given the title “Opportunity Scholarship Program” is flawed.  While it is true the beneficiaries of the bill are children in failing schools, these children are deemed poor, or lacking the family income to provide some basic needs for their family.

The proposal does not go far enough.  At its core, the funding of the bill provides a “discounted scholarship” for these students.  It does not provide even the full amount of funding currently going to the local public school system for these very same children.

This is the insanity part.  We are in the bottom 10 in funding for our public schools in this state.  We bemoan the results we are getting by blaming teachers, administrators, and anyone within the sound of our voice for our failures.  While success has many fathers and failure is an orphan, we are quick to point our fingers at others for our failure.

We are not providing our public schools the resources they need for our students to succeed. I can almost read the minds of some who are listening to my diatribe who will say “money doesn’t solve everything.”  But I say if you go to the grocery store with no money or means to pay for the food, you walk away empty handed.

We are waving the white flag of surrender and saying that the task of public education of our students in this state is too big.  We have heard that the achievement school district cannot possibly handle all those students who are in failing schools.  I refuse to surrender and I will not abdicate my responsibility.

Our children are not widgets, or chairs or commodities in a business that can be bought or sold, or traded.  They are each one unique in their own way – different hair, eyes, fingerprints, voices, different gifts and talents, and certainly products of very different environments.  They don’t walk into the front door of the school building the same, nor do they leave each day and return to the same environment.

Believe it or not, some students go home to empty houses.  Not because their parents don’t care but because they are working, or they may be disabled themselves and unable to care for their children as they so desire to.

Yet somehow we think they will all learn the same way or perform in the same way if we just hand them a scholarship and a pat on the back and say “go and prosper.”

I’m now hearing some say that “Pitts is just defending the status quo.”  I hardly know what the status quo is anymore.  Quite the contrary, I want us to change our thinking.  We should put our money where our mouths are and invest, truly invest, in education.  No longer can we just get by on the cheap.

Our children are not lab experiments.  Teachers, principals or parents aren’t the problem.  Our policy that seems to change from year to year is creating confusion.  First to the Top, Tennessee Diploma Project, Common Core, TCAP and next PARRC give me whiplash.

I believe the sponsor of this legislation is truly an honorable man with a good heart.  He spoke longingly about our task here is like building life boats.  While I agree this bill is a lifeboat, we are putting our students, our most vulnerable and precious gift, in a life boat with one oar.

The bill before us does not provide for the basic human needs of the child. We now have an amendment on here that gives a child a lunch, should they come to school hungry and qualify for that. It is hardly a choice for a parent to have to decide between changing the educational environment by taking a scholarship but in exchange the child may go to school hungry and possibly watch their classmates eat.  We can do better.  In fact, we have a responsibility to do better.

Finally, Mr. Chairman, I received a visit from a parent after subcommittee in my office.  She was dispatched by one of our well-meaning but misguided education reform groups to question me about my position on this bill.

She was under-informed about the details of the bill.  In fact, she was misinformed about this proposal.  After about 15 minutes of a very direct and, at times, tense conversation, she understood my position on this proposal.  She had not even been given a copy of the legislation until I gave her one.  She was misled by this group and I so want to call them out publically but that is not my style.

I do want to say to that group, and they know who they are, that you should be ashamed to use a parent as a pawn in your efforts.  If you’ve got something to say or want to disagree with my position on this bill, then stand up and be responsible and say it.  Believe me, I can take it.  I’ve been chewed out by a lot bigger and better folks than you.

Let me end by saying this…

HB 190 does not go far enough.  It does not put enough money into the program to make the scholarship an attractive choice.

It goes half way toward providing for those students who need it a meal at school.

It does nothing to address transportation.

We don’t speak to how we objectively evaluate the program after full implementation in four years.

It does nothing to say to our special education population that if you get a scholarship, or voucher, you are at risk of attending a private school that will not fully attend to your learning disability because the school won’t get the federal money that goes with a special needs student.

It targets at-risk students in failing schools.  We should prioritize failing students in failing schools first.

Let’s not build this program on the cheap.  We should raise our hand and say that Tennessee students deserve every dollar at our disposal.  Tennessee schools are hallowed places of learning.  Tennesseans care about their children.

Mr. Chairman, you and the committee have been extremely patient.  I would ask for a roll call vote on this bill – not to put anyone on the spot, but so that years from now when my successor in the General Assembly reflects on the record of this proposal, they can say Rep. Pitts voted against it.

I also want my grandchildren to say, “Pops stood up and spoke out, and voted his conscience.”

Thank you.