Teaching the Underdog 

A former Shelby County commissioner relates old duties to new ones.

Since leaving the Shelby County Commission to work for Michelle Rhee and StudentsFirst, I have often been asked what I will miss most. Memphis and its poorest residents are the quintessential underdogs, and it often seems no one from the outside expects Memphis to succeed. 

So, fighting and cheering for the underdog as a commissioner is what I will miss most, but it is also central to why I left. In Memphis, and throughout our state, our poorest children need advocates who will put their interests first and insist on the best educational system for them and all children. As state director at StudentsFirst, I get the privilege of continuing that activism, while striving to change our state and nation for generations to come.

Today, many people believe that poor children are destined to repeat a cycle of poverty. Kids living in low-income homes, they believe, will fall behind their classmates, likely drop out of high school, and rely on government programs as their parents and grandparents did.           

It's true that low-income kids generally are lagging behind their peers. In 2009 on the NAEP reading test, fourth-grade students in Tennessee who were eligible for free or reduced-price school lunch had an average score that was 23 points lower than that of students who were not eligible. A similar gap exists for math between fourth-grade students considered low-income and their higher-income counterparts. 

We can and must close these achievement gaps. They are not inevitable.

Research shows that the one thing that matters most when it comes to student learning is the presence of an effective classroom teacher. Effective teachers can help students close the achievement gap and excel academically regardless of their income level, race, gender, or how often their parents attend school functions.

Helping poor kids in Tennessee excel academically starts with putting an effective teacher in every classroom and retaining those teachers by providing them with career and leadership opportunities, meaningful professional development, and higher pay.

Despite any appearance of inattention, parents of poor children and those in underperforming schools would overwhelmingly choose a better-performing school for their children if given the option. 

StudentsFirst believes parents should be empowered with real choices and reliable information to make good decisions about their children's education.  

A recent Stanford University study demonstrated that Tennessee's public charter schools in many cases outperform traditional public schools. Among 20 Memphis charter schools, 50 percent made statistically significant gains in math over traditional public schools and 65 percent outpaced traditional public schools in reading. 

Memphis has been the state leader in authorizing public charter schools and creating more high-quality educational choices for parents, but there is still more to do.

One option that should be considered is giving parents the ability to petition to convert a chronically failing school into a public charter through a meaningful "parent trigger" law. Still another option worthy of debate is the use of publicly funded scholarships to allow low-income students trapped in ineffective and failing schools the chance to attend high-performing private schools.   

As a Shelby County commissioner for five years, I worked to eliminate spending that was wasteful, that benefited special interests but didn't help kids, and I supported evidence-based spending that could improve the lives of poor children and struggling families. At StudentsFirst, I will continue to fight for these priorities.

Because resources are scarce and nothing is as important as the well-being of our children, governments have to align decision-making with students' interests, not the interests of adults. Budget priorities should be driven through the prism of student achievement and provide maximum transparency and accountability for parents and taxpayers. 

Pension and benefit systems that are unsustainable and drain education dollars away from the classroom need to be reformed. Elected leaders and policymakers must aggressively tackle the tough decisions of closing costly, underutilized facilities and driving those savings into programs shown to enhance student achievement.

There is no doubt I will miss being a part of the policy debates in the greater Memphis community. Stepping aside in mid-term after working so hard to serve the people of Memphis is tough. Uprooting family, leaving friends and the grittiness of the place I will always call home has not been easy. 

However, the chance to transform public education in Tennessee and give every child a real shot at success is not an opportunity I could let slip by.

Mike Carpenter is a former Shelby County commissioner who is now state director of StudentsFirst in Nashville.

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