Commentary: Legislators are mini-Pharaohs treating the state’s servants shamefully

April 28, 2022 9:00 am
(Getty Images)

(Getty Images)

As a special education advocate and former high school teacher, the mother of two sons who have attended public school, private school, and homeschool, and the wife of a high school teacher, I am a strong defender of our public school libraries. Unfortunately, it seems Speaker of the Tennessee House Cameron Sexton and his Republican supermajority want to take away parental control, restricting us from collaborating with librarians for the benefit of our own children.

This is not a new phase for this legislative session. At every turn, lawmakers have threatened to withhold funding from our public schools. They have insisted teachers are the enemy, school nurses are the enemy, and now, school librarians. These professionals spend more waking hours with our children than we do. They deserve our respect and support.

When I was a teacher at a private Christian school here in Nashville, the headmaster started every year’s inservice lamenting the way Americans have lost respect for people in authority since the Vietnam war. I am here to tell you the disrespect is coming from inside the legislature’s supermajority, and I have had enough.

Our children are not using public school libraries to access porn. They’re not thumbing through the pages of books to find deviant sexual behaviors or subvert American history. If they want that, it’s all on their cell phones, and our public school libraries don’t have the funding to offer anything like it.

I was an advanced reader growing up, and my mother only objected to one book I got from my public school library. She said the job of censoring a child’s library books is a parent’s job. Anything else is big government poking its nose where it doesn’t belong. She didn’t call our legislator. She called Ms. Parks and Ms. Burns, my school librarians. Mama was right.

This legislature has heard testimony from teachers, librarians, public school parents and students. Still it seeks to punish the schools our taxes fund, over 1,700 public schools in 147 school districts.

My mother objected to one book I got from my school library. She said the job of censoring a child’s library books is a parent’s job and she called the school librarians, not our legislator.

This legislature provides $4,000 less per student every year than the national average, yet they would still have you believe that the librarians are to blame. In the church I grew up in, there was a name for the guy who told the Israelites to keep making bricks after he took their straw away, and Sexton and the members who passed this bill through committee are pharaohs in miniature, treating Tennessee librarians shamefully.

Given this kind of treatment of our educators, it’s no wonder Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn told Gov. Bill Lee we have been 2,000 teachers short per year for the last several years.

No matter what made up controversy legislators seize on next to scare hard-working Tennesseans into thinking our kids are in danger, it will not answer for the failure of moral responsibility this legislature has shown our children.

Look at Memphis, where the state-run billion dollar achievement school district is closing after only 4.5% of students scored at grade level. What has this supermajority done for those children?

Look at Waverly, where hundreds of Humphreys County kids sit in a makeshift warehouse classroom as I speak, because their elementary and middle schools are still destroyed from last year’s flood. What has this supermajority done, but turn their backs on the children and pad the state’s Rainy Day Fund instead of giving students  functional schoolrooms?

Look at Sunbright, where the first rural Community School has started—the opioid crisis has left 80% of students not living with their parents and one of every 4 parents is dead. What has this supermajority done for those children?

Sexton would have you believe our school librarians are the predators, and not that this supermajority’s complete failure to care for the children of the Volunteer State is a problem. Will the 10-12 members of that politically appointed state textbook commission review the millions of books in Tennessee schools? Will they comb through the online library applications our schools use? Will they have the training to discern why an online library such as Bookshare is invaluable for disabled students, or why Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library partners with Bledsoe County Schools and Sweetwater City Schools and Lewis County Schools to give children more books than their parents could hope to afford?

The Supreme Court ruled in 1968 that tailoring a public school’s books to satisfy any religion is a violation of the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution. Will Tennessee’s supermajority claim Rule of Law at the same time they use our taxes to drag manufactured crises back into the courts, wasting resources earned by our hands that should be spent on our children? Or do they expect us to fund their endless culture wars and then donate sacrificially to fix the problems that were their responsibility to begin with?

I am a Christian, and because of that, I look to the teachers and the librarians and the nurses as the helpers, the people I know, who live in my neighborhood and see my children every day. I talk with them when I have concerns about what my child is reading or being exposed to. I certainly do not ask a mini-Pharaoh with no background in education or library science to tell me what my child should get to read.

I remind this supermajority that if they can be troubled to read the book they call the official state book, they might see this question. “And what does the Lord require of me? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with my God.”

These words from Micah precede the Christian tradition, but perhaps if the supermajority and Sexton could muster some respect for even one verse, they would be freed of the fear that drives them to control education decisions we make for our own children and to instead lead with laws that will contribute to the flourishing of Tennessee’s young folks.


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Anna Caudill
Anna Caudill

Anna Caudill is a Nashville-based Special Education Advocate. A member of the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates, she was named a Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute Angel in Adoption. She has spoken at the Center for American Progress on disability rights and is a graduate of Vanderbilt Kennedy Center’s Volunteer Advocacy Project and the Institute of Special Education Advocacy at William and Mary Law School.