In celebration of National School Choice Week, Tennessee Federation for Children sponsored a Champions of Choice event at the state capitol to present Representative Bill Dunn with the 2019 Champion award.
Standing beside Tennessee Speaker of the House Glen Casada (R-Franklin), Shaka Mitchell, Tennessee’s State Director of American Federation for Children, said that as National School Choice Week is being celebrated this week, they wanted to come together to recognize one of the state’s leaders in education and strong advocate for students, Speaker Pro Tem Bill Dunn (R-Knoxville).
American Federation for Children (AFC) is a Washington, D.C. headquartered non-profit organization that seeks to “empower families, especially lower-income families with the freedom to choose the best K-12 education for their children.”
The event was held in the Legislative Library located at the state capitol with as many as 100 in attendance including legislators and members of Governor Bill Lee’s staff. AFC’s partner organizations in the effort including Beacon Center of Tennessee, Americans for Prosperity-Tennessee and Tennessee CAN (The Tennessee Campaign for Achievement Now) were also there.
AFC’s Mitchell started off by speaking about the quality of education in Tennessee, “The reality is we still have a long way to go,” after crediting Governor Bill Haslam’s efforts over the past eight years that “absolutely increased the quality of education available for every student in the state.”
Citing some sobering statistics, Mitchell explained why more needs to be done. “Despite having an 89 percent graduation rate, our state only has a 35.8 percent college-ready rate. And that number is cut in half, if you look at African-American students, Hispanic students, students from low-income backgrounds. It drops under 17 percent.”
“That’s not to say that all students need to go to college,” said Mitchell, “but every student deserves an opportunity to be college and career ready when they graduate. Right now, we’re just not doing that for enough students, especially our most vulnerable students.”
While that was the bad news, according to Mitchell, “The good news is that this year we absolutely, and in this building, you have an opportunity to expand our state’s educational choice program to set every child on a path to success.”
While AFC is “agnostic” when it comes to what educational choice looks like, Mitchell said his organization wants to make sure that no matter their zoning, “every kid is in an educational setting that makes sense for him or her.”
Mitchell maked the point that as most Tennesseans have only one choice, it is effectively “no choice at all.”
The 2018 election was encouraging to Mitchell, where a clear choice was made when voters “elected men like Governor Bill Lee, Speaker Casada, Speaker Pro Tem Bill Dunn, who I believe are absolutely strong advocates for families and kids all through our state.”
As he turned the program over to Speaker Casada, Mitchell said Casada was a supporter, as well as others in the room, of school choice before it was “cool,” mentioning that the rest of the population is catching up. The point was evidenced, as Mitchell said, in a national poll released last week with 67 percent of Americans in favor of school choice and an even higher number for things like Education Savings Accounts (ESAs).
Speaker Casada said the empirical data shows that “Tennessee is the fastest improving in education in the nation,” which he attributes to the legislators and executive branch recognizing over the last eight years that “parents are the most important ingredient in determining their children’s education” and their strengthening of things like home, private, parochial, public and on-line schools, “pointing the Titanic in the right direction.”
Casada added, “I don’t just want to be the fastest improving. We want to be the best.”
“Now is the time,” Speaker Casada definitively stated, for another tool in the toolbox in the way of Education Savings Accounts.
Whether “they live in Franklin or Dresden or Mountain City or Memphis,” Casada said, adding a sense of urgency, “we do not want to lose another year of our children being the best they can be.”
By contrast, the previous Speaker Beth Harwell was endorsed in the 2018 Republican gubernatorial primary by the Tennessee affiliate of the National Education Association (NEA), a professional organization and labor union representing education professionals, the largest labor union in the United States according to Ballotpedia, and opposes school choice.
Casada expressed his appreciation for Dunn, who “has been in the heat of the battle in the past,” and not being afraid to speak his mind, “he’s been the lead on this issue for many, many years.”
Ketch Secor, front man and founder of the Grammy Award winning band and Grand Ole Opry members, Old Crow Medicine Show, writer of a children’s book, and founder of the Episcopal School of Nashville was introduced by Mitchell.
Secor described his parents as “itinerant educators who travelled all around, primarily in the American south, working in independent schools and eventually founding independent schools like the Episcopal School of Knoxville in legislator Dunn’s home district.”
“I fundamentally believe that every child regardless of where they live should have access to a great education and that’s why I’m involved in education and that’s why I’m supporting it,” Secor continued. “That’s why I helped start the Episcopal School of Nashville.”
In his ongoing fight for programs that “put a high quality education within the ready of every family,” Secor expressed excitement about what Educational Savings Accounts “can mean for families that are living on the margins and yet looking for opportunities for their kids to advance through education.”
Secor added that legislators like Dunn who share the passion are needed, and expressed his appreciation for Dunn’s commitment to educating the next generation as he invited Dunn up to accept the 2019 Champion of Choice award from Tennessee Federation for Children.
In accepting the award, Speaker Pro Tem Dunn said that “letting parents decide where their kids would go” was on his campaign literature when he first ran in 1994. While that might not have been the right decision politically, Dunn said “I think it was the right decision policy-wise, so I’ve been pushing for it.”
Dunn said he appreciates the award, but reflected, “Right now, it’s more for being a hard trier because I haven’t succeeded yet. There’s a certain amount of sadness that for 24 years, I’ve been pushing and pushing, knowing that it would be a benefit.”
“Putting an interesting perspective on school choice,” Dunn said, “It shouldn’t be radical to put kids first and to say that decisions will be made by what is best for the child.”
For those who say that they don’t want school choice to come to Tennessee, Dunn offered that we already have it in higher education with the HOPE Scholarship and Pell Grant.
Speaking to how competition drives everyone to do better, it concerns Dunn that public schools “give the attitude woe is us if vouchers or ESAs come” and “the idea that they can’t compete.”
In stark contrast to what he has encountered, Dunn portrayed his vision, “I would like to hear a public school say, ‘Bring it on. We are good. We have great teachers we have great programs, we can compete with anybody.’”
Although he said he could give a day long presentation on why it’s good and tell stories about his experience working in schools, Dunn concluded by expressing appreciation for the award and his hope that, “One day, you can add congratulations for finally getting the ball across the goal line.” With that, Dunn was responded to with a round of applause and a standing ovation.
As Mitchell was wrapping up, he mentioned looking at pictures in the Cordell Hull Building from 1995 when Dunn and Representative John DeBerry were both freshmen, commenting that they hadn’t aged.
That prompted to Dunn stand up again and say that he had meant to start out praising John DeBerry.
Recalling its origins, Dunn said that school choice began with Democrats. “The Democrats saw that these kids were suffering in some of these circumstances in the environment they had, and the Democrats were the ones who pushed it.”
As to the current state of the issue with Democrats, Dunn said, “As soon as the Republicans said, this is a good idea, guess what? They ran away.”
Calling John DeBerry, “a personal hero of mine,” Dunn said DeBerry “knows a good idea and he has stuck through thick and thin.”
Mitchell agreed, saying, “Both men are driven by their faith, driven by conviction and absolutely have stood on principle and are fighting for kids.”
Speaking to the efforts and sacrifices made related to education, Mitchell continued, “It’s really a testament to what parents will do to make sure there are great education options in their community. Sometimes they will drive 25 miles one way. Sometimes they will, in fact, start schools themselves. So, thank you for doing whatever it takes to make sure that kids in our community, where we live, have great options.”
Reaffirming what was said earlier about the timing being right, “We really think, as Speaker Casada said, that this is the time. We have got a moment in time, and this is a great year. There is no better time than right now to do the right thing for kids.”
Laura Baigert is a senior report with The Tennessee Star.
Photo “Bill Dunn Awarded” by National School Choice Week.