By David Tulis
Dr. Rick Smith is the man whose great will in matters of schooling superintends the wills of others in the local system. He intends there to be more cash to spend for administration, improvements and students. But when it comes to money, his intentions hit a brick wall.
That is the county commission, whose members vote on tax increases for Hamilton County’s schooling system. Dr. Smith has held 11 public cry sessions to drum up support for an additional $34 million dollars. At some meetings a third of the people in the audience are on the system payroll. Taxpayers are sympathetic about his call for the need to support children and education. In general, members of the public appreciate Dr. Smith’s general boosterism of education.
Dr. Smith and officials across the state are chief stewards of a system launched in the 1830s in a burst of goodwill and high sentiment enshrined in the state constitution. The provision that is the basis of the public school system in Hamilton County is not, as people such as commissioner Tim Boyd suppose, compulsory, but voluntary upon cities and counties.
The state spends $7.38 billion annually to support a school bureaucracy and governments in 95 counties and innumerable town corporations that run their own systems under constitutional authority. Schooling is the state’s No. 2 outlay after “health and social services” programs (for these it spends $13.91 billion).
Schools comprise just under 60 percent of Hamilton County outlays. The county’s expenses in 2014 were $403.75 million. More than 66 percent of the county’s debt, or $163.43 million, is for schools.
‘We have to take everyone’
Dr. Smith, in the report of his last presentation, joined in a lament that appears to have been inspired by school board member Rhonda Thurman. She has heard complaints from teachers about disrespectful students. “In their school, the F-bomb is dropped every day,” Mrs. Thurman says. “It should not be allowed in our schools.”Replies Dr. Smith, “we have a society today that doesn’t respect our teachers. *** How many of us would ever have said anything crosswise to a police officer?” The school chief goes on to complain, “We get the kids that the other [schools] don’t want. We have to take ’em.”
It worth looking at the state’s foundational law for public schools, particularly as local people are wondering if there is any way to exit the public school business that doubles the tax rate for property holders in the county. That the state has a compulsory attendance statute implies, somehow, that the system itself is compulsory upon the people.
The people speak, and herein is their decree in the constitution:
The state of Tennessee recognizes the inherent value of education and encourages its support. The General Assembly shall provide for the maintenance, support and eligibility standards of a system of free public schools. The General Assembly may establish and support such post-secondary educational institutions, including public institutions of higher learning, as it determines. (Tennessee constitution, Article 11, section 12)
No, Supt. Smith and his staff do not have to take all comers, as he declares. The general assembly has fallen down on its obligation to write “eligibility standards” for school systems for which it provides maintenance and support.
If schools are surrounded by a moat of eligibility standards, children inmate within will be under much stricter orders from home to remain honorable and hard working. Eligibility is a concept that makes a distinction between those students who may enter for free schooling, and those who may not. Such standards would serve a public purpose in making it easier to govern these schools and keep out those who are undeserving or riffraff, whether from upper crust families with Beemers in the kids’ garage or from the among the poor. The standard would require an application process — a hurdle for those seeking to put their children on the public school dole.
To write the standards would require deep introspection, an entire system of thought, of philosophy, of religion, since education is inherently religious in nature (teaching right and wrong, good and evil). If standards exist, the school system would accept some applications, not all. To remain free from human whim, to avoid being arbitrary and capricious and subject to lawless discretion by state actors, the standards would have to have a rigorous delineation that would combine family, parental means, character, letters of recommendation, signs of success or proficiency among the candidates.
If the idea of a strict standard from the general assembly makes you feel squeamish, one could compromise. One could let all first-graders in without meeting any eligibility requirements, but would demand 7th graders apply under strict scrutiny.
Public schools not mandatory
Eligibility standards — or the lack thereof — have not been litigated, if my review of the Tennessee Code Annotated bound volume is any indication. Still, education is esteemed as a high purpose in Tennessee law.
“The constitutional provision making it ‘the duty of the general assembly, in all future periods of this government, to cherish literature and science’ is, to be sure, merely a direction to the general assembly, but it is is nevertheless indicates a popular feeling and the public policy upon this great question.” (Green v. Allen, 24 Tenn. 170, 1844, in dissenting opinion).
The words direction or directory are opposed to that of compulsory or mandatory. It implies a general will of the people, giving direction and stating a preference to the general assembly through the constitution.
The state had a school fund before the war to prevent Southern independence, lost during the war. The assembly recreated it in 1873, having “spoken [it] into existence by legislative fiat,” as one opinion puts it. “This section of the constitution makes it the express duty of every general assembly at all times to encourage, foster, and cherish literature and science,” according to notes that cite the case State v. Mayor of Knoxville in 1905. “As one of the chief means of accomplishing this most important purpose, the constitution contemplated the establishment of a common school system, and provided the common school fund.”
Preference for the state school, not a rule
Public schools are a “state purpose,” says another case from 1927. “It has long been firmly established *** that the establishment of a system of public schools and the exercise of state taxing power for their maintenance is *** a state, county and municipal purpose, and is fully authorized by the Constitution of Tennessee” (quoting a 1909 opinion).
Yes, it is a purpose of the people through the constitution to have a system of free public school, and they authorize the general assembly to fund the system. But its operation in Hamilton County is not compulsory, but merely directory. You might say public school is a preference, an offer. Schools are a benefit conferred, not a prohibition or a negative imposed. No county is coerced by a ban or prohibition on NOT HAVING a school system. The factory school system is a state purpose, but only in the conferring of a benefit to a given county government. If that county wants to tax its own people and be part of the system, it gets generous state handouts.
But Hamilton County is not bound to remain under the bondage of state schooling if local people have a mind to allow the digital revolution and the free market to relieve them of a system that continues to generate complaints and heartache at tax time.
— David Tulis hosts Nooganomics.com 1 to 3 p.m. weekdays at AM 1240 Hot News Talk Radio, exploring local economy and free markets in Chattanooga and beyond. Encourage independent media by supporting this website and 1240 AM Hot News Talk Radio — on the real airwaves in Chattanooga, on your smartphone via the TuneIn radio app, or online at Hotnewstalkradio.com. You support me first by supporting my advertisers and telling them you love and appreciate Hot News Talk Radio. You also back me by buying spots for your business, nonprofit or church. Also, buy me a coffee at the tip jar.
Sources: Tim Omarzu, “Rick Smith makes final pitch for $34 million school budget increase,” Chattanooga Times Free Press, May 13, 2015. http://www.timesfreepress.com/news/local/story/2015/may/13/smith-wraps-tour-tout-34-millischool-budget/303944/
Comprehensive Annual Financial Report, Hamilton County, 2014
Comprehensive Annual Financial Report, State of Tennessee, 2014