Teacher voices critical to state: Candidates urge communication
by CHRISTY ARMSTRONG Banner Staff Writer and DELANEY WALKER  Banner Staff Writer
Jul 23, 2014 | 1938 views | 0 0 comments | 44 44 recommendations | email to a friend | print
House Hopefuls
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(Editor’s Note: This is the last in a series of articles on education-related issues as seen from the perspectives of three candidates seeking Tennessee House of Representative seats in the 22nd and 24th Legislative districts.)

Many candidates running for state offices do so because they say they want to see changes in how the government handles issues they feel are important to Tennessee residents.

The Tennessee House of Representatives hopefuls seeking to represent Bradley Countians have been looking at ways they can change education in the state.

In the running for those offices are state Rep. Kevin Brooks, R-Cleveland, who is unopposed for re-election to the 24th Legislative District, and 22nd Legislative District candidates Dan Howell and J. Adam Lowe, also Cleveland Republicans.

Brooks acknowledged Tennessee has made educational improvements over the past few years.

“It continues to improve,” Brooks said. “I have a unique perspective. At the time I was placed on the House Education Committee, I was the only sitting member with kids in the Tennessee public school K-12 system. I was not just a member of the Education Committee. I was a dad.

“Much of my decision-making and much of my information-gathering was based on what my kids were telling me [was] happening at Cleveland Middle School and Cleveland High School.”

He mentioned both Common Core State Standards and the PAARC assessment as areas in need of improvement.

Howell shared similar sentiments.

“I think we’re making progress,” Howell said. “… But we still have a ways to go.”

Howell called working with teachers to better the state’s education the Legislature’s “most important job.”

All three candidates agreed there is room for more improvement.

One issue Howell said the Tennessee Department of Education really needs to work on is communication.

Howell said teachers he has met feel their concerns about what makes their jobs stressful for them are not being heard.

While there are many different issues facing state legislators nowadays, he said he sees education as the most important.

“It’s the No. 1 job of the Legislature,” Howell said. “It’s the keystone of everything else we can do in the state.”

The Volkswagen manufacturing plant in Chattanooga will expand its assembly line to include a new SUV model, and he pointed out the Tennessee plant was chosen because the company had confidence in the education of would-be workers.

Brooks said the decisions made in education today could not be described as “easy.”

“Volkswagen and Wacker chose our region of the world for multiple reasons; among those [is] our workforce,” he said. “These decisions we are making right now directly affect the Volkswagen and Wacker employees of tomorrow.”

Howell said good education can create a healthy cycle of jobs so people can make more money. When that happens, the state sees increased tax revenues, which can be poured back into education.

But he stressed ensuring Tennessee has a good educational system requires ensuring good communication. Legislators need “a good understanding of the classroom,” a perspective that may be best heard from the teachers themselves, he said.

Listening is “essential,” Howell added. 

The 22nd Legislative District hopeful said he has often been asked which bills he would champion if he’s elected.

He said he does not want to introduce bills for the sake of introducing them and that he would give an issue careful consideration before acting on it.

“The best bills are created when legislators listen to constituents,” Howell said.

Howell’s most recent job title came as the assistant to the Bradley County mayor. He retired from that position on Jan. 8, and he said he is ready to tackle the concerns of Tennesseans as a state representative. He said he will use what he learned from his years in Bradley County, if he is elected, to serve in Nashville.

“I think Tennessee has continued to raise the bar,” Howell said. “Bradley County has led the way. We have good teachers. We need to listen to their concerns.”

Lowe applied a slightly different lens to education.

He said he views education as the responsibility of an entire community. Schools as well as nonprofits, churches, families and other entities all play a part in teaching children.

While he said schools play a great role in helping children grow to be productive individuals, Lowe said there has perhaps been too much of a focus on teaching curricula that may not be vital to academic learning.

“Many schools seek to institute morality,” Lowe said. “Schools need to be the incubators of academic innovation.” 

The state of Tennessee “needs to decide what schools should be capable of,” so teachers can focus on the most important things, he added.

He said legislators must decide the state’s priorities.

Currently the vice chairman of the Bradley County Commission and the director of institutional advancement at Cleveland State Community College, Lowe pointed out a local situation that represented the need to make schools a priority.

A popular topic in Commission discussions has been how the county funds needed renovations at Lake Forest Middle School, while keeping taxes low. At some point, he said, school matters might need to take precedence over delaying a slight tax increase.

If elected, Lowe said he will need to make sure children are getting what they need to learn well in school — even if the lobbyists at the state Capitol offer strong opinions on other issues.

“A state representative has to be [an advocate] for a constituent without a lobby — a child,” Lowe said.

Too often, changes in a state’s educational system happen after there has been a “crisis,” he added.

Every person has his or her strengths, and he said it is important for legislators to have “open and professional dialogue” on issues affecting education in Tennessee. He added that, if legislators are not knowledgeable about an issue, they should listen to people who are.

“I surround myself with people who keep me in check on those issues,” Lowe said. “And some things just aren’t partisan.” 

Lowe said the biggest issue he will take on if elected will be stressing the importance of local control over educational issues.

He said he would introduce or support legislation to put more power in the hands of local school boards and superintendents. He explained the idea is the local school systems are more capable of listening to the concerns of parents of students in those systems, and they should feel free to share those concerns.

“Parents need to be re-empowered over education,” Lowe said. “It takes courage. It takes bravery — for parents and legislators both.” 

Brooks urged voters in both Bradley County and Cleveland to make their voices heard.

He described representatives as mail carriers. According to Brooks, he personally “carries” input given by his constituents to Nashville. Sometimes he brings back good news in the way of grants and action. Other times he is unable to enact change on behalf of the individual or city.

“We are entering into the season of elections,” he said. “It is incredibly important for people to be involved ... I do want you to vote for me, but just go vote. The most important thing is to just go.”

Voters are already deciding which of the three men will be their state rep. Early voting in state primaries is already underway and will continue through Aug. 2. The traditional Election Day is Aug. 7.

The Republican Primary is expected to decide which of the state representative candidates will go to Nashville, as there are no Democrats listed on the primary ballots for either legislative district who would advance to the State General Elections in November.