Tennessee, You're the Best "D" I See

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U.S. Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, recently spoke at ALEC’s 44th annual meeting. In case you’re wondering who ALEC is, their website states that they are “America’s largest nonpartisan, voluntary membership organization of state legislators dedicated to the principles of limited government, free markets and federalism.” Coincidentally, the tenets of limited government, free markets, and federalism align perfectly with the Republican Party, which makes it baffling how ALEC successfully advertises itself as a nonpartisan organization.

In any case, DeVos made several superficially common-sense statements during her seventeen minute speech that were unfortunately interwoven with gross inaccuracies.

At the beginning of her speech, she made the inarguable point that there needs to be more local control of public education. “Leaders in each state are better able to understand their own circumstances. They are more able to devise solutions than someone perched in Washington, D.C.” The reason why this point is inarguable is because it is not open for debate. Secretary DeVos apparently fails to understand the bipartisan Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) passed last year so that states could have more autonomy over their own education systems. Further, I was left wondering if, as U.S. Secretary of Education, she isn’t attempting to do the very thing she said someone “perched in Washington, D.C.” shouldn’t do--profess to know what’s best for all states? I mean, isn’t that her job? I agree with Secretary DeVos when she said later in her speech that “The time of top-down, inefficient, one-size-fits-all mandates are over. This approach does not work, it has not worked, and it will never work. We’re fooling ourselves if we think otherwise.” Her top-down mandate of spreading unregulated charter schools and school-choice programs that have been unequivocally proven to fail students and ruin public schools needs to be stopped in its tracks.

After viewing her speech I decided to look more into ALEC’s position on public education. As it turns out, it’s the same as Secretary Devos’s, and they release their own report card every year rating the education systems of all fifty states plus Washington, D.C. This report card grades states across six categories: academic standards, charter schools, homeschool regulation burden, private school choice, teacher quality, and digital learning. Charter schools and private school choice were double-weighted.

On ALEC’s report card, the state with supposedly the worst education system is Nebraska. This is a state where, according to the Washington Post “more than 45 percent of adults have some kind of college degree.” Next to last is Wyoming, “which has a high school graduation rate of nearly 90 percent.” So then why are these states rated so poorly? Well, Nebraska does not have any charter schools nor does it have any vouchers or voucher-like programs. Wyoming, also doesn’t allow charters or vouchers and it closely regulates and monitors its home school programs to ensure that students are actually learning something and being held to the same standard.

Not far behind them, in 47th place, is Tennessee, with a “D.” I couldn’t be more proud. ALEC gave this state poor education ratings because we have consistently blocked en masse unregulated charter school expansion and voucher legislation, except for special education students. They rated Tennessee’s teachers a “D+” and digital learning a “D-.” To demonstrate what complete nonsense this report is, one need only look at recent history. Tennessee has become the fastest-improving state in the country in math, language arts, and science based upon its NAEP test scores. That would not have happened without a legion of great teachers. Further, Governor Haslam’s “Drive to 55” initiative is getting ready to pay huge dividends because last school year produced the first graduates of Tennessee Promise.

I hope that Tennessee remains at the bottom of ALEC’s report card, because it means that we’re doing amazing things to meet the needs of our students. That said, with Tennessee being such a conservative state, we must also expect that ALEC and organizations like the Foundation for Excellence in Education and Alliance for School Choice will continue their fight to dismantle, destroy, and privatize public education. We must be ready and willing to fight for our students when the need arises and remind our elected officials that they improve their chances of getting elected when they stand on the side of students and teachers.