Dear Senator Gardenhire,
My name is Alexander Ioannidis and I am a rising senior studying Economics at the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga. I am a lifelong resident of Chattanooga and currently reside in East Brainerd. I have been following the debate over the proposed school-choice legislation very closely, and my emotions have been continuously fluctuating. There are times when it looks like this bill is bound to pass, and there are times when it looks certain to fail. I know that people from both sides of the aisle are trying to lobby for your vote, I know that you had several concerns about the bill, and I would be a fool to think that you were not conflicted about it. With this being said, I cannot tell you how grateful I was when I saw that you voted along with your fellow Hamilton County colleague Senator Watson to send it out of the finance committee and advance it to the Senate floor. I was even more grateful today when I saw that after the urging of President Trump, the Senate coalesced around it and passed the bill. While I could not be more thrilled that it passed, I hope and pray that after the House and Senate reconcile their versions of the bill, Hamilton County ends up included in the final passage.
School choice has personal value to me. As a child, I was blessed with parents who made so many sacrifices to send me to Silverdale Baptist Academy, a private Christian school where teachers cared for me, invested in me, and made me the man I am today. After leaving Silverdale, I was better prepared for college and for the real world. I was blessed with this experience because my parents could afford to send me to such a great school, but unfortunately, that is not the reality for the low-income children that this bill would help. What is even more tragic is that most of the children this bill would help are not zoned for better funded private schools like East Hamilton or Signal Mountain that maximize the opportunity for school children, but they are zoned for public schools such as Howard or Orchard Knob where funding lags behind the wealthier schools due to our county’s funding system, where test scores are lower, and where opportunities are lesser. To add insult to this injury, many of the low-income children in these schools do not have a father figure at home to push them the way my father did. Their mother is often working multiple jobs in order to make ends meet, so she is not able to be as involved in her child’s life as she needs to be. As ugly as this is, such is the life of a low-income family. While the Government cannot provide a parent to invest in these kids, it can provide a good education, and I would argue that as a lawmaker who has constantly championed educational reforms, there is nobody better than you to lead this movement.
As a student at Silverdale, I witnessed firsthand how our school gave financial aid to students that were trapped in failing schools, invested in their potential, gave them a quality education, showed them the love of Christ, and completely changed the trajectory of their life. I watched people who left the so-called “school-to-prison pipeline” simply because a private school reached out to them and gave them an education that there was no way they could get in a public school. Sadly, Silverdale was only able to recruit a few of these students, but if the ESA bill passes, parents will now be able to send their kids to schools like Silverdale and give them the better opportunity that they deserve. Could you imagine how many student lives will change if an ESA bill allows thousands of kids in Hamilton County to find the same love and support that my peers were blessed with? I want to encourage you to watch the PragerU video called “How School Choice Changed my Life” where Denisha Meriweather detailed her story of how a simple tax credit to send her to a private school took her from a failing student to the first person in her family to finish college. She then went on to obtain a masters degree. These are the people that Governor Lee’s proposal would help. Hamilton County is filled with untapped potential, and this is your opportunity to tap into it using our education system.
With this being said, I read several of your concerns about this bill. Many of them are valid. I see both sides of the debate about letting undocumented immigrants take part in the program. While you have supported providing more educational opportunities to undocumented immigrants, many state lawmakers including Governor Lee ran in opposition to this idea, and they would be breaking their campaign promises if they flipped on the issue. I am not expecting you to agree with them, but I hope you can respect their position. Furthermore, I hope it is not something as unrelated as an immigration policy dispute that kills a piece of great legislation for thousands of Tennessee students. I hope there is a level of compromise to resolve this dispute. I also understand the concern about Brainerd High School, and I hope and pray that it does improve. In fact, I am optimistic that it will improve because we have one of the best communities in the country. We take care of one another and we will come together and try to invest in the Brainerd community, particularly Brainerd High School. With this being said, it would be foolish to wait for Brainerd High School to improve to the levels desired before implementing this proposal. Our top focus should be on improving education for students. Improving public schools should be important, but it should not come ahead of improving education as a whole. If school choice will improve education, we should pass the bill as we continue to work on Brainerd High School and the rest of the struggling schools in the area. Finally, I understand your concern that they did not come down to Hamilton County and try to work with you to craft the legislation. That would bother me as well and I would prefer to have the bill tailored to my county, but this is often the ugly reality of politics. Sometimes what we want is not exactly what we want, but it goes in the right direction and improves our lives, and in this case, our education system. I have witnessed you champion educational reforms through your time as a State Senator, and on this bill, I want to encourage you to take what you can get and support it. After we implement the program, we can observe the results and adjust the legislation as necessary to best serve Hamilton County. You have always been a leader in education and I do not expect you to stop now. In fact, after the bill passes, I expect you to be the first to analyze the results and try to improve it as necessary, and you will likely have support from the community.
In closing, an unknown but very wise person once called insanity “doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results.” This is exactly what the teacher unions and the politicians on their payroll advocate for when they ask for more money for public schools. We have been giving more money to public schools since public schools came to be, but at least in my lifetime, more money never seems to solve the problem. We always seem to have more money to give to public schools, in fact, just last year the county commission voted to raise taxes to do just that. I would encourage you in this instance to be a leader and to try something new. I would encourage you to support this school choice bill and push it through the Senate. I would encourage you to fight to include Hamilton County on the final bill this way private schools in the county such as Silverdale, Boyd Buchanan, CCS, and Grace can reach into the poorest communities, recruit students with potential, and build them into men and women of character. Sometimes the “least-of-these” need nothing more than someone to invest in them, and this ESA plan is the perfect bill to enable private schools to eagerly invest in these students.
As a young and aspiring Chattanoogan trying to make a difference in my community, the biggest trait I see in a leader is someone who does what is right regardless of consequences. In this case, you will face opposition from crowds who are thrilled with the status quo or who have a personal interest in opposing school choice, but I want to encourage you to vote on this based on what you know is right and based on what you know is best for the students in Hamilton County. You have always been a leader on education and this is your time to shine.
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Background Photo “Tennessee Capitol” by Ken Lund. CC BY-SA 2.0.