On Tuesday night, county commissioners discussed the possibility of a wheel tax. My purpose in this column isn't to say anything about whether a wheel tax should be enacted or how the proceeds should be divided. But there was one statement made Tuesday night which needs a response -- I've heard it many times over the years.
One of the county commissioners reported that his constituents had told him one reason they wanted to see wheel tax proceeds divided a certain way was because they had no children in school and therefore money going to the school system didn't benefit them.
That statement is wrong in a number of ways.
First off, a good school system benefits all of us, in any number of ways. Earlier on Tuesday, I heard Crissy Haslam, wife of Gov. Bill Haslam, tell a group of dignitaries at Argie Cooper Public Library that when her husband tries to recruit new industries to Tennessee, the education of the local workforce is always a factor. A more educated workforce attracts industry. An under-educated workforce does not. Whether or not you currently have children in the school system, that affects you, personally, because it helps determine whether our economy grows or shrinks.
It's certainly possible for anyone to be a jerk or a criminal, regardless of educational status. But obviously, education increases one's chance of getting a job and a regular paycheck, which lessens the chance of desperation-based crimes.
A strong school system benefits all of us.
And it's also unfair for anyone who attended public school in the past to say that it doesn't concern them. That's part of the social contract. The school system provided you with a free education when you needed one; you have a moral responsibility to give that same chance to the next generation, whether the next generation is related to you or not.
Our county school system is facing challenges. We pay lower teacher salaries than our neighbors, which makes it harder for us to attract the next generation of teachers, even as a lot of long-time educators are retiring. School systems are more heavily regulated than ever before, forced to meet various requirements imposed by the federal and state governments. Both of those situations predate our current superintendent, who's been on the receiving end of some potshots lately.
If you don't like No Child Left Behind, or First To The Top, you've certainly got company. Education reform has its heart in the right place but sometimes the implementation of it tends to be ham-handed and makes things worse for the hard-working teachers on the front-lines. But you can't blame local officials for state or national policies, and you can't expect local officials to do anything but comply with them, as best they can. Wagging your finger at some local official won't help in cases where it's a state or federal policy that's driving things.
Schools do matter, to all of us. Education doesn't cure every problem, but it's a huge part of quality of life, and a huge factor in economic and community development. As we consider how best to spend our money in a tight economy, we all need to keep that in mind.
--John I. Carney is city editor of the Times-Gazette and covers county government.