Nothing demonstrated the power of support from parents and community better than the fight against school vouchers in the 2016 legislative session, and their support of Tennessee public schools and teachers is even stronger this year.
Community groups like Students, Parents, Educators Across Knox County (SPEAK), Tennesseans Reclaiming Educational Excellence (TREE), and the Middle Tennessee Coalition Advocating for Public Education (CAPE) were instrumental in helping beat out-of-state privatizers with their school voucher schemes for the fourth year in a row.
As Rep. Dale Carr (R-Sevierville) told the Knoxville News Sentinel, calls against vouchers were 10-1 or 12-1 in Sevier County before the voucher vote in the statehouse last year.
“I’m hearing from teachers, administrators and retired teachers,” Carr said last spring. “All the teachers calling are against it. I will not vote for vouchers. If I support my people, I cannot vote for vouchers.”
TEA members and educators across the state who came to Nashville during Civication days on their spring break were heartened to see the outpouring of support for public schools and fostered new relationships with parents and community groups back home.
“The voucher fight demonstrated that the more privatizers push to undermine public education in Tennessee, the harder we will fight, together,” said Duran Williams, TEA UniServ coordinator. “This year, we might have to fight even harder.”
In spite of vocal opposition to vouchers four years in a row, the voucher bills are back this year, and we must mobilize quickly to keep vouchers and other bad initiatives out of Tennessee.
“Whatever comes, we’ll be much better off sticking together,” said TEA member Amanda Kail, who teaches English as a second language at Margaret Allen Middle School in Nashville.
As one of the most outspoken teachers in Metro Nashville, Kail wears many hats, which include her role as the organizing chair for MNEA and a founding member of CAPE, the Coalition Advocating for Public Education.
“Last year, the voucher fight came very quickly,” Kail said. “We had an initial meeting with TREE and SPEAK, and all of a sudden the voucher bill was on the table the next day. We sort of were thrown into the fire, but it was important to have those relationships before we got into the fight because we were able to lobby not just as teachers.”
In an unprecedented show of solidarity, students, parents and teachers testified before the legislature, called state representatives and senators at home and visited them in their offices in the statehouse, voicing strong opposition to vouchers.
Hearing from folks back home solidified the ‘no’ votes on vouchers and brought them to a critical mass to defeat the bill.
“Having the broad spectrum – not just teachers, but parents, community groups and other folks as well, makes it a lot harder for the Legislature to ignore you,” Kail said.
To Lyn Hoyt, a Nashville public school parent and founder of TREE, the voucher battle is a clear indication that public schools are targeted by out-of-state special interests intent on privatizing all schools.
“Voucher supporters, along with money from outside interests, will stop at nothing to expand voucher programs in Tennessee, effectively creating a privatized black hole for taxpayer dollars,” Hoyt said. “Tennessee ranks 45th in funding for public education, leaving schools to tread water while legislators look for ways to fund private schools. That’s when a strong parent-teacher partnership really helps preserve our schools by telling elected officials that we don’t need privatization, we can do better.”
“Strong parent-teacher partnerships keep our schools and communities healthy, whole and focused on nurturing great futures for our kids. It is a relationship. You must work at it,” Hoyt said.
With the 2017 legislative session underway, TEA is watching all bills and encourages local associations and community groups to follow our communications in order to be prepared to fight vouchers and other bad ideas once again.