The candidates defend the public school system

  • Three candidates are seeking the Democratic nomination for governor of Tennessee in the August 4 primary.
  • The candidates took part in a debate sponsored by the Tennessee Democratic Party on Tuesday.

Tennessee’s Democratic gubernatorial candidates denounced recent education bills during a debate Tuesday in Nashville.

“We will oppose sending public money to private schools,” said Memphis City Councilman JB Smiley, Jr. “It’s not what’s best for every person, every student.”

Smiley, Nashville doctor Jason Martin and Memphis community activist Carnita Atwater said they oppose Republican Gov. Bill Lee’s education measures during a debate hosted by the state’s Democratic Party on campus Avon Williams of Tennessee State University.

Democratic gubernatorial candidates Dr. Jason Martin, Carnita Atwater and JB Smiley, Jr., on stage at TSU Nashville for a debate on June 21, 2022.

Candidates are competing in the Aug. 4 primary.

Meanwhile, Smiley and Martin said that if elected, they would ensure that discussions about race and racism take place in the classroom.

“Racism is part of our past, it’s part of our present,” Martin said. “If we don’t want this to be part of our future, we need to talk about it.”

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Atwater went further, saying she would ensure critical race theory was taught in higher education.

The controversial concept is an academic framework widely taught in higher education, but it has also been used to describe racial ideas taught in elementary, middle and high school.

Last year, Republican lawmakers passed a law limiting how certain race-related topics are taught in the state in K-12 classrooms. Although the CRT is not mentioned in the law, the proponents cited it when promoting the proposal. This year, lawmakers extended the law to higher education.

Democratic gubernatorial candidates Dr. Jason Brantley Martin, Dr. Carnita Faye Atwater and JB Smiley answer questions during a Leading Candidates Forum hosted by The Tennessean at the George Shinn Events Center on the University campus of Lipscomb on Thursday, May 19, 2022 in Nashville, Tenn.

“I’m going to go back and restore CRT programs to universities,” Atwater said. “I’m going to go back and install these programs in universities so people can learn about racial disparities.”

Event co-host and Tennessee Holler co-founder Justin Kanew asked the contestants what they thought of what he called the public school “bonus.”

Proponents of Lee’s college savings account program say it will open up opportunities for families, while opponents fear public schools will lose local control.

Smiley called Lee a “walking disaster” and said he was trying to privatize public education.

“We must immediately veto any element of education that allows public funds to go to private schools,” Smiley said.

Atwater said she believes voucher programs undermine public schools, which she called a “basic civil right.” She also expressed the need for a “holistic” approach to education that addresses mental health and poverty.

Democratic Governors Forum with candidates JB Smiley, Dr. Jason Martin and Carnita Atwater at the Schreier Auditorium at the UT Health Science Center in Memphis, Tennessee on Thursday, June 16, 2022.

Martin accused Lee of creating a crisis in public education by underfunding schools, which he said caused communities to blame teachers. Lee pushed through a new funding formula this year and allocated $1 billion more for education, but Democrats say it’s still not enough.

“We have a policy in place that will strip schools and school districts of local control and create a property tax bomb for a few years,” Martin said.

The debate came on the same day the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of allowing public funds to go to religious schools to support a Maine voucher program. The Tennessee Supreme Court also recently ruled in favor of Lee’s voucher program, saying it did not violate the state constitution when limited to Davidson and Shelby counties.

Jeremy S. McLain