OPINION: ‘One size fits all’ doesn’t fit in education

By Glen Gaugh

Guest columnist

The State of Tennessee owns education, from the standards to the testing, from the curriculum to the teacher certification, from the funding they will contribute to the funding our county is forced to contribute (yes, the State decides both).

The State of Tennessee has made some decisions that are not popular, and they always will. But they make decisions from time to time that seem to be beneficial. There were many years I can remember when the State increased teacher pay by 2%. One percent was to come from the State, while the other 1% was to come from the county. I remember that, up until recently, Madison County simply passed on the 1% increase from the State without contributing their 1%.

The State of Tennessee had discretion over how to handle Covid lockdowns and decided that those decisions should be made at the local level. Madison County eliminated in-person learning. Each county in our state did this to greater or lesser extents, and Madison Co., with much pushback, opened in-person learning faster than other Tennessee counties. But they did so while maintaining measures some would call draconian, with the support of unelected individuals and unaccountable entities. The learning loss was done, and it was directed by the folks here at home.

Based on these two examples, it should be clear that neither the State nor the county government/school system has a corner on good decisions. The bottom line remains that the State has the purview to make education legislation via the General Assembly and policy via the Department of Education that heavily decides how things are done at the local level. I suspect the budget process in Madison County could not handle trying to figure out how to have any semblance of what we have now in public education, if we cast off the burdens of the State, and all the associated funding, completely.

The consequences of the Third Grade Retention law are heartbreaking, not for the way it appears to usurp local control, but for the fact that 80% of Madison County 3rd grade students are about to enter retesting or remediation because they cannot read on grade level. Government policy responses always come off as ham-handed, but the state of literacy in Tennessee and in our county particularly is a wholesale travesty.

There is a way out of the spiral that can improve learning and eliminate the frustration of government involvement in making decisions for your children’s education. It is called school choice. There are 20% of 3rd grade students who are thriving in a traditional public classroom, but there are 80% that would benefit from greater access to other options. Government involvement exists in school choice to greater or lesser extents (charter schools are for all purposes publicly funded, while even home schooling families must comply with the state standards for graduation). But when individuals and families have more options and more discretion with their education dollars, the results are shown to be better for all students, including public school students.

The real lesson is simple- one size does not fit all when it comes to education. Now is a great time to consider if the path your child is on is the right path.Glen Gaugh is the executive director of Student Award Center, a nonprofit K-12 school choice organization making school choice possible through scholarships in West Tennessee.