Tennessee lawmakers are threatening to defund schools that refuse to return to in-person learning. The pressure campaign is aimed squarely at Memphis and Nashville, which serve mostly Black and Latino students and have been online-only since spring 2020.
The squeeze on these two school districts comes as teachers in Chicago rebuffed directives from the mayor and board of education to reopen their doors on Monday. “We will continue to work remote so we can keep ourselves, our families and our school communities safe. If we are locked out by the mayor and CPS [Chicago Public Schools], then the choice to strike is theirs, not ours,” the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) announced.
Despite the school district’s attempts to label the labor action an “illegal strike,” teachers and staff stayed home. It’s not technically a strike, because they’re still working from home, but they are pitting their resolve to stand up for each other’s safety against the mayor’s attempts to throttle the union. “Voting [on direct action] works!” Kenzo Shibata, a high school English and history teacher and a member of CTU’s executive board, wrote on Twitter, attaching a screenshot of a bargaining update.
The CTU has been at the forefront of rank-and-file militancy, striking three times in the past decade, including a 2019 14-day walkout. “Once you are backed into a corner, you have to fight,” Shibata told me ahead of the union’s announcement on Sunday.
But such activism isn’t unique to Chicago, teachers, parents, and community members in Tennessee echoed that same sentiment in response to lawmakers’ threats. “We are essential but not expendable,” said Edwina Perry, a Black teacher in Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools.
On January 22, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee proposed HB7021 as part of a $160 million education package that would cut funding to schools that stayed virtual. The Senate did not approve the bill during a special session on education funding, but Republicans have vowed to refile it when the regular session resumes on February 8. It would require school districts in Shelby County, which includes Memphis, and Davidson County, Nashville’s county seat, to compel teachers back into classrooms for at least 70 days in the current school year and 180 days in the 2021–22 school calendar or risk losing state funding.
“Here’s the bottom line: You can’t say ‘Follow the science’ and keep schools closed,” Lee said, addressing a joint session of the Tennessee General Assembly on January 19. Taking aim at Shelby and Davidson Counties, he added, “Kids do better in school. We know that. Parents know that. That’s why I’m so proud of our districts who have kids in school, and to those who remain closed, I would offer this simple encouragement: Follow the science.”
OK, let’s follow the science. The medical journal The Lancet has found that early studies showing low-risk transmission in schools were wrong, because they had faulty sampling, excluding asymptomatic students while including students with low attendance. With a highly contagious and fast-spreading variant of the virus taking hold, the United Kingdom, South Korea, and Germany are closing schools in recognition that, as The Wall Street Journal put it, “schoolchildren, even younger ones, can play a significant role in spreading infections.” In the United States, health officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention weighed in on January 26, arguing that “the preponderance of available evidence” suggests that—with mask-wearing and social-distancing measures properly enforced—in-person instruction can resume safely if there are strict limits on indoor dining in restaurants and bars. Tennessee, however, still allows indoor dining at full capacity, though there are a patchwork of local restrictions around the state.
The sincerity of Lee’s remarks about following science also fall apart under cursory scrutiny. Social media pictures show him not wearing a mask at a pro-Trump boat parade, others with his arm around a restaurant owner and with his wife in a crowd of 1,500 people at the White House during the Republican National Convention. These instances lend credence to what school district leaders contend is clear evidence of “hypocritical” and “disingenuous” behavior.
“There are circumstances where I don’t wear a mask because I don’t feel like I’m at risk in that situation,” Lee told local reporters, a rationale contrary to the guidance from health experts.
Laura Leonard, an English language teacher who has taught in Nashville schools for over 25 years, told me, “The science dictates that we remain virtual-only until we get this virus under control. The science also dictates that when the community is healthy, the schools are healthy. He would be wise to also invest in a socialized medicine program for Tennessee.”
At best, Lee has underplayed the lethality of the virus, refusing to enact a statewide mask mandate; and at worst, he has contributed to the death toll through poor leadership, government mismanagement, and negligence. By mid-December, the state had the second-most Covid-19 cases per 100,000 people. On his watch, bars in downtown Nashville have been packed with revelers, predictably becoming vectors for infection. Construction has been declared an essential industry despite workers complaining of unsafe conditions, and now many of the state’s clusters are being traced back to building sites.
“Tennessee’s government has made it very clear that they could [not] care less about the working-class people of Tennessee,” said Cecilia Prado, codirector of Workers’ Dignity, a workers’ center in Nashville. Prado cites the influence of the Chamber of Commerce and the powerful Associated Builders and Contractors, where Lee once served as president, adding, “When it comes to state legislation, developers and big business always get their way. Instead of passing laws to protect essential workers during the pandemic, the Tennessee General Assembly passed liability protections for employers around Covid-19.”
Prado said she finds common cause with the struggles of teachers and communities of color. “Going back to in-person school means more deaths for Black people, people of color, and teachers,” she said.
Angry at the governor, Jenee Peters, a math teacher at a rural school in Northeast Tennessee, joined rank-and-file groups like Tennessee Teachers United and the Badass Teachers Association that have united with teachers in Florida, Arizona, and elsewhere to demand to be allowed to remain virtual until it is safe to return to the classroom. Feeling constrained by what she describes as the “balancing act” the Tennessee Education Association has to do with the Department of Education and legislators on Capitol Hill, Peters began organizing her fellow teachers, and the experience crystalized a key insight for her: “At the end of the day, our association should be member-driven. Big change doesn’t come top-down. It comes bottom-up.”
But not everyone cares what the teachers want. Groups like Let Nashville Parents Choose and the State Collaborative on Reforming Education (SCORE) have pushed for in-person instruction. On January 23, Fran Bush, a Nashville School Board member, said in a Facebook comment in response to a post from Amanda Kail, president of Metropolitan Nashville Education Association: “Enough of your bull! We are going to open in person soon. Either you want to teach or quit your day job with MNPS [Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools], I am sick of your tactics and your agenda!! Our kids deserves [sic] better than this and they will not be held as pawns to your demands. Girl bye!!!”
Tennessee ranks 45th in funding per pupil, and its teachers are among the lowest paid in the country. Edwina Perry teaches fifth grade social studies in Nashville and has been working virtually since March. Despite having a master’s degree and studying toward a doctorate, her teaching salary is $47,493 a year, and she works retail part-time at a Victoria’s Secret to make ends meet. On top of everything, she has to purchase school supplies for her classroom. Perry told me, “I don’t see pilots buying the gas for their airplanes. I don’t see doctors buying the things they need in the doctor’s office.”
A 2019 poll conducted by the Tennessee Department of Education and Vanderbilt University’s Tennessee Education Research Alliance found that one out of three Tennessee teachers would leave the teaching profession to earn a higher salary. A USA Today survey showed that teachers in the Metropolitan Nashville area earn on average $32,279 after federal income taxes and put 56 percent of that toward rent.
A January 2020 state government report found that Tennessee’s school funding formula, known as Basic Education Program was woefully inadequate and concluded that the state needs at least $1.7 billion in funding, instead of the $1.5 billion legislators have promised.
“Every problem our governor describes could be solved by investing in professional educators and local school districts,” said Kail, president of Metropolitan Nashville Education Association. Kail points to the teacher strikes in West Virginia, Kentucky, North Carolina, Oklahoma, and Colorado: “Teachers walked out in red states because they were tired of their school buildings falling apart, tired of not having what they needed to teach kids, tired of working two or three extra jobs just to make ends meet.”
In 2019, Tennessee educators fought for higher pay and better working conditions. “Nashville Red4Ed, along with Nashville Sick Teachers, staged rolling sickouts and walked out together on May 16, 2019. We pushed funding public schools to the top of the political agenda in Nashville,” said Kail, then the lead organizer for Tennessee offshoot of Red4Ed. The teachers lost a funding hike by one vote at the Nashville Metro Council. That same year, Kail ran for elected office on a reform slate that won every open officer position in the Metropolitan Nashville Education Association.
“Ultimately, we want to rebuild not only the Metropolitan Nashville Education Association, but the Tennessee Education Association,” which is the state affiliate of the National Education Association, adding that membership at the local MNEA has increased by 36 percent with active committees and diverse leaders. “That is the only way we will be able to successfully beat back the attacks on public education and teachers,” she told me.
Lee has committed to a 4 percent raise for teachers, but even that poses a problem. According to Kail, “the raise offered by the governor is not fully funded by the state, leaving local districts on the hook for the bill, which is really shameful because the state currently has a $1 billion surplus in revenue and the biggest rainy-day fund in the country.”
Underpaid and working in understaffed schools, teachers spoke movingly of their commitment to their students. Many of the teacher who talked to me described their efforts to provide technology support to families struggling to navigate online platforms or holding what English teacher Susan Norwood described as “navigator calls,” akin to the work of a social worker, to confirm that students are housed, fed, and have adequate Internet access. Other teachers like Rosita Lopez, a pseudonym to protect her from professional repercussions, recounted spending hours on WhatsApp with a mother who worked at a bakery, showing her how navigate the online platform, so she could help her children attend virtual classes.
Despite the challenges of online education, the teachers I spoke with say it is worth it. Leonard, the English language teacher, told me, “Teachers are determined to make distance teaching a quality learning experience for our students, and we have made huge strides despite the lack of funding! We are saving lives this way!”