When you start loading Nashville mayoral candidate David Briley’s website, the first thing that pops up at you (even if you’ve got a popup blocker) is a green-and-white page proclaiming that David Briley is “The Green Mayor,” and an accompanying sustainability program that, really, isn’t bad at all from a Green standpoint. Now, the Nashville mayoral race is supposed to be nonpartisan–but “Green” is, after all, the name of a certain political party that is active in this state, although Mr. Briley did not ask for our endorsement or even permission. He has hijacked our brand name! Should we sue? What’s a poor third party to do? And I do mean poor! But then, there are “green building codes” and “greenways” and “green power switches” and a memorable REM album that don’t have anything to do with us, either, but they’re not political offices. How should we resolve this confusion? I’m open to suggestions.
But I’m not going to comment on Mr. Briley’s sustainability proposalsright now. I already have. I would like to comment on Governor Bredesen’s proposals for changing the way education is funded in the state, which Mr. Briley brought to my attention via his endorsement of them. Here’s the deal: Tennessee spending on schools averages around $5500 per student and is among the lowest in the nation, in part because we don’t have an income tax (an issue which neither Briley nor Bredesen will touch), and in part because, besides not having an income tax, our tax rates and revenues are among the lowest in the country. The source of revenue that Governor Bredesen has found is…a higher tax on cigarettes! Because Tennessee’s cigarette tax is the third lowest in the country! Bredesen wants to triple the tax rate, to sixty cents a pack, which still leaves Tennessee in the low third on tobacco tax rates.
Basing increased funding for education on cigarette taxes does present a bit of a conflict , though—it gives the state an interest in promoting tobacco usage, doesn’t it? “Smoke a cigarette, pay a teacher!” And really, shouldn’t higher cigarette taxes go for anti-smoking campaigns and medical care for the cigarette smokers, who are going to need it sooner or later? But, I digress. About that funding proposal….
Now, when I start talking about education, I kind of have to split myself into an absolute Green mode and a relative Green mode. From the absolute, Deep, Deep, Deep Green Perspective, public schools are a way to indoctrinate young people into hierarchical, bureaucratic society, and should be abolished, along with many other elements of Life As We Know It. From that Deep, Deep, Deep Green Perspective, we need a complete reorganization of society—but, much as my soul yearns for that, I don’t think it’s gonna happen tomorrow or next year or even in the next decade…the next twenty years, maybe. So, in the short term, we need to find a way to apply our ideals to what is in order to prepare the way for what needs to happen, and that is the “relative Green” spirit in which I am approaching Governor Bredesen’s proposals.
The first proposal simplifies the way in which a county’s ability to contribute to its school costs is calculated, by returning to a formula of adding property tax and sales tax revenues, which makes it much easier to understand. It is currently figured out by “a complex statistical regression equation.” When I tried to find out what THAT means, my eyes started to glaze over as I ran into terms I hadn’t grappled with since I nearly failed Algebra II back in high school and decided not to even attempt calculus. I think of myself as an educated person, but I’m educated in the social sciences, not math. If we can take care of government business without resorting to “complex statistical regression equations,” I’m all for it. ( Sounds like something Dave Barry would say, doesn’t it?) Anyway, I’d go along with this on the grounds that it’s important for decision making processes to be transparent. Phil says the more complex way wasn’t working that well anyhow, and I’ll take his CEO word for that.
The second proposal eliminates the “cost differential factor” which helped increase school salaries in communities with high wages. There are only seventeen of these in Tennessee, which should come as no surprise, and Nashville is one of them, but according to David Briley, even with that factored in, Nashville, which has ten percent of the state’s schoolchildren, has only been getting five percent of the state’s school funds, due to a sales tax distribution formula that predates the ascendancy of Williamson County as an area-wide shopping destination.
Bredesen wants to eliminate this in part because only seventeen school systems in the state benefit from it, and in part to free up more money for teachers’ salaries all over the state. I think he’s on shaky ground here—sure, all teachers deserve better pay (disclosure: my mother was a teacher!), but it does cost more to live in Nashville than it does in, say, Hohenwald, and since the state provides the bulk of the money for teacher salaries, it only seems fair to me for the state to help reflect this.
And the next proposal is to return the state’s share of school salary funding to 75%–it was cut to 65% a few years ago and that has been a hardship on many school districts and their employees. Bredesen also wants to increase basic teacher salaries to forty thousand dollars a year from their current level of thirty-seven five. This is mostly what is getting paid for by that extra forty cents from every pack of cigarettes sold. Buy ’em up, folks! Along with this is an injunction that counties must maintain their current school funding levels—no slackin’ off because the state’s chipping in more!
Bredesen also wants to give more funds to help educate students who are learning English as a second language, and more to help educate “at risk students,” that is, students who are at risk of dropping out of high school. The education of “at risk students” should be of special interest to all of us who are committed to alternative education, because it’s usually the “at risk” kids who get innovative, more free-form programs that are more like what school ought to be for everybody, as long as we’re going to have public schools. “At risk” kids are also frequently kids who have understood the failings of contemporary society and are open to a more radical education.
And that’s it. Hardly “a dramatic overhaul of education funding in Tennessee,” as Bredesen claims on the state website. Aside from funding the “at risk” kids, there’s nothing about content, which is left to school boards and the tender mercies of the No Child Left Behind Act. In many ways, it’s a very unsexy issue, but it’s the kind of nuts-and-bolts thing that we need to learn about if we are going to become an effective third party in this state and in this country.
In closing, I have to add that I find it totally shocking that Governor Bredesen has spent so much of his attention on a minor tweak of state education funding while letting Phillip Workman, an innocent man, go to his death, and leaving Paul House, who has actually had his sentence overturned, to languish in jail, suffering from Multiple Sclerosis. Phil, this is the kind of behavior that gives Christianity a bad name. How can you sleep? Listeners, call the governor’s office at (615) 741-2001 or email
and say: “Philip Workman did not shoot Ronald Oliver. How could you let a man be executed based on a lie—and why is Paul House still in jail?”