I had a great visit to Chattanooga and met many dedicated, civic-minded people. I was invited to visit by the Benwood Foundation, which has done an amazing job helping local public schools and supporting environmental improvement.
Chattanooga is a beautiful city of about 170,000 people. It has a lovely, historic central city. Everything is within walking distance or a short ride.
First, I met the local editorial board and had a spirited conversation with them. They literally had a columnist on the left (who sat to my left) and a columnist on the right (who sat to my right). We had a great conversation about what is happening nationally and in Tennessee.
Then I talked to civic and business leaders, and we had a good question-and-answer session about the ingredients needed for a community to improve its schools and how the business community could play a constructive role. I talked about the need for collaboration around children and families; the importance of prenatal care for every woman; early childhood education; the arts in every school; and how vital it is to treasure our educators. I hope that conversations like this will encourage people to ignore those who disrespect and demean educators. Our public schools are vital community institutions. I think the people of Chattanooga understand that.
Before my lecture, there was a reception where I met some old friends that I did not anticipate. One was Henry Shulson, the director of the Chattanooga Children’s Museum. I knew him when he lived next door and was about 8 years old. That was about 50 years ago!
At the same reception, I met a local state senator who told me that Michelle Rhee has been pouring lots of money into political campaigns in Tennessee. Most of the candidates she supports are Republicans, he said. But she pumped $105,000 into a Democratic primary fight. On one side was a liberal Democrat who supports public education; on the other was a very conservative Democrat who wants vouchers. She supported the latter, who won. He said to me, “You have to understand that legislators will work hard to raise $1,000. Can you imagine what it means to have someone give you $105,000?” He said she is going from state to state, knocking off good people who care about public education and support her Republican views.
The lecture went really well. The room at the University of Tennessee was animated. What amazed me was that on several occasions I made statements that caused the audience literally to gasp. I recall saying that states should never cut education to give tax breaks to corporation–which seems like a truism to me–and I heard an audible gasp. Tennessee has been so eager to lure corporations to the state that I think what I said was heresy, yet music to the ears of educated people.
Chattanooga is a city that has enormous potential. There is a real hunger to build a community, to have a city that takes care of its own. That’s a great beginning for the revitalization of public education.