By State Senator Reginald Tate
Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen has accurately called “literacy attainment the equity issue of our time.” I agree. I will take it one step further: Education is the civil-rights issue of our generation. Education is also the key to Tennessee’s future.
In Tennessee, public schools must ensure all students are well-prepared for college or the workforce. All students must be ready to participate as responsible and engaged citizens when they graduate. The greatest challenge we have is to make sure our students leave high school as creative and critical thinkers. That begins with the ability to read on grade level. It all begins and ends with reading.
There is an undeniable connection between literacy skills and incarceration rates. Children who do not read on grade level are more likely to dropout, use drugs, or end up in prison. Research shows that reading abilities in third grade act as a tell-tale barometer for later school success. Reading to children every day is critical. The Department of Justice states, “The link between academic failure and delinquency, violence, and crime is welded to reading failure. Over 70% of inmates in America’s prisons cannot read above a fourth grade level.”
Dr. Elena Delavega oversees the 2017 Memphis Poverty study at the University of Memphis recently pointed out that “Poverty in the U.S. continues to drop, but it is increasing in the entire Memphis area.” Researchers say the statistics were created based on a number of factors. The overall poverty rate in Memphis is 26.9 percent, which is a 2.7 percent increase from the study done by the Census Bureau in 2015. The child poverty rate in Memphis is 44.7 percent, a 4 percent increase from 2015. “The poor in Memphis tend to be minorities.” Delavega blames the rate on low wages, the healthcare and the education system.
Journalist Mishala Bryant also pointed out in a 2016 article about the Memphis poverty rate: “Poverty not only affects a child’s performance in school, but it also affects their ability to continue on to a successful adulthood.” Audrey Shores, with Professional Educators of Tennessee, also agreed with Bryant and stated, “Those most affected by low literacy rates are African- American, Hispanic, and children with disabilities and for whom English is their second language.” It is important we are honest and confront the equity challenges not only in Memphis, but across the state.
There is a powerful comment in Jim Collins’ bestselling business book Good to Great: “Get the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and the right people in the right seats.” So, it is important that we start prioritizing our spending, and over the long run it will save money to create a strong public school system. And we have to get the right people into our classrooms, pay them and retain them. We must attract and retain high-quality educators by raising educator salaries. Then ensure that educator raises are not consumed by healthcare costs and inflation, or other system expenses.
Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell admitted that the “challenges that we have in education are not to be solved by just the school system.” The Mayor is correct, but we must recognize that the problems are much larger than a school and are likely to be different in each community. Our teachers exercise a higher duty of care than most professionals. Teachers also face exposure to liability much greater than the average citizen. Nearly every day, teachers must deal with diverse laws related to issues such as child abuse, student discipline, negligence, defamation, student records and copyright infringement. And still they must teach. It is not an easy job. Educators make a difference in students’ lives, every single day. It is also true that students have a responsibility for their own growth and learning. Adults have to motivate them to make good choices.
As a state, not only is it in the Tennessee Constitution, we also have a moral and ethical responsibility to provide a quality education for every single child who comes to the door of our schools every single day. Every educator and advocate for public education, especially lawmakers, must take seriously our obligation to prepare all of our young people for the opportunities they will have and the challenges they will face when they exit public schools. We need more champions for children in our state.
Martin Luther King Jr. reminded us that people die, but dreams do not. I challenge our community and state to make it our dream that all children will read and get the education that they need. We must overcome barriers to reading to make education a civil right for all. It is why I serve on the Senate Education Committee as Vice-Chair to give a voice for all children and educators, and to unite all stakeholders to improve public education here in Memphis and across Tennessee. If we are to close opportunity and achievement gaps in education, community and faith leaders, parents and families, policymakers and administrators, businesses and nonprofits, and educators and education advocates have to be involved in this effort to support the learning and development of all children.
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State Senator Reginald Tate (D-Memphis) serves represents Shelby County’s District 33 Shelby County, where he serves as the vice chair of the Tennessee Senate Education Committee. Senator Tate is the President and CEO of Accent by Design and has a degree in Architectural Engineering from the University Of Memphis.