Tennessee spends more money — roughly a third of the state budget — on education, making it the largest single element of the budget and clearly the state's highest priority. Hamilton County government spends an even larger share of local property tax revenue on education. Yet few members of the Legislature know what it takes to be a teacher or manage a classroom, or to help a student learn, or to know what schools and classrooms actually need, and it shows. It shows in the Legislature's disdainful treatment of teachers, and in their bumbling attempts to get education reform right.
We point out this lamentable disconnect to urge voters in District 30 of the state House of Representatives to elect Sandy Norris Smith. She's not only a 40-year veteran of classroom teaching; she has also served as a key liaison and coordinator for the county's teachers to the local legislative delegation the past several years in an effort to improve the effectiveness of reform legislation. So she knows as much as any lawmaker — and probably a lot more — about education reform and what it takes to make it viable and productive.
Smith's retirement from Hamilton County schools last June leaves her free to devote more time to the education reform issues that remain unresolved, and she's committed enough to that goal to take on a race against incumbent, Vince Dean, who, to his credit, acknowledges a good working relationship with Smith. Dean, however, is prone to going along with the Republican leadership; Smith would offer more independence, as well as a more authoritative voice and personal insight into education issues.
And there are plenty to be addressed, because the Legislature left a lot on the table when it concluded the last session. It left the role of teachers' associations unresolved, a mangled teacher evaluation process, poor teacher morale and a growing list of resignations by frustrated teachers. Smith's experience could help resolve those issues constructively, and enable her to pursue other education goals, including more STEM schools, and more technical/vocational schools geared to the needs of new businesses.
She would also provide a more insightful and constructive view on women's rights and health issues, which are also under attack by the increasingly overbearing Republican majority, whose members march all too blindly to the decrees of lobbyists for extremist right-wingers. Some examples: the NRA's endless push for excessive gun-rights bills; anti-health care sentiment that ignores the needs of uninsured and under-insured working families; too much rhetoric about gays and creationism, and too little engagement on reasonable ways to encourage the growth of small and medium-sized businesses.
Unless there's a meaningful check on the right-wing juggernaut in the November election, however, the Legislature's drift into social wedge issues is likely to worsen, putting Tennessee behind the competitive curve for new jobs. That's because Republicans may well capture a super-majority in both chambers of the Legislature — a benchmark which would give them a party-controlled quorum any bill they want without any need for bipartisan consideration.
As it stands today, for example, Republicans in the 99-member state House already control 64 seats, and in the 33-member state Senate they control 20 seats. That leaves them just two seats shy of a two-thirds super-majority in both chambers. And given the way the NRA spent $200,000 to defeat pro-gun-rights Republican state Rep. Debra Maggart in the August primary — solely because she wouldn't support a bill requiring employers to allow gun-carry onto their parking lots — it's easy to see how hard-right lobbyists will try to steam-roll Republicans in the next session on every front.
Tennessee needs, and deserves, a more balanced, constructive approach if the state is to improve education and health care, and to continue to lure progressive, well-paying businesses and expand economic development. Toward that goal, we have endorsed Frank Eaton in District 27 over Richard Floyd; JoAnne Favors in District 28 over Johnny Horne; and City Councilman Andrae McGary over Todd Gardenhire in the state Senate's 10th District. We also endorse Sandy Norris Smith in the 30th House District over Vince Dean.