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Grassroots or Astroturf?

By Sally Absher

Imitation is the most sincere form of flattery… unless it is AstroTurf. Artificial, orchestrated copycatting, especially when it is done for political reasons, is offensive.

Last October, Halls third grade teacher Lauren Hopson’s speech to the School Board started a dialogue about public education in Knox County, and energized more teachers, parents, and students to speak out.

Concerns included Common Core, excessive standardized tests, and teacher evaluations. Many asked why Knox County students are tested more than the state requires.

Parents and teachers launched SPEAK – Students, Parents, Educators Across Knox County. SPEAK provides a forum for parents, teachers, and citizens to share concerns and information about the education and administration policies of Knox County Schools.

SPEAK encourages members to attend School Board meetings, and wear red to show support for teachers. This led to the design and printing of bright red SPEAK T-shirts. SPEAK doesn’t have a $900K/year PR department. It is 100% grassroots and 100% self-funded.

The community started waking up to what is happening with our schools and in Board meetings. Thanks to “The Rude Awakening” (WFNZ 94.3 FM); the Shopper News; and the Knoxville Focus for covering these issues. The drumbeat is starting to be heard.

Speaking to the Board recently, teacher Mark Taylor quoted Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, who said, “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.”

Knox County citizens deserve transparency from an organization that consumes two-thirds of the county budget. Dr. McIntyre and the BOE are not happy about the increase in scrutiny.

So it’s not surprising that a second teacher/parent group emerged, with their bright blue T-shirts boldly proclaiming “I Love My Job.”

In addition to teachers, many members have ties to the PTA, or were part of the yellow-shirted “Support Our Schools” (SOS) a few years ago. The Chamber of Commerce and Great Schools Partnership heavily promoted SOS.

There is nothing wrong with a positive attitude. We all need encouragement, and ALL teachers want to recognize the success and achievements of their students. There are teachers who genuinely love their jobs and have no issue with the current policies.

In fact, the teachers who are speaking out and raising concerns are doing so BECAUSE they love their profession, other teachers, and the kids they teach.

Lauren Hopson said, “I’m thrilled that 30% of Knox County teachers are perfectly happy with their jobs and don’t have to fear losing their jobs for saying so, but 70% of us realize that some serious problems still need to be addressed in order to help our students the best we can.”

Hopson’s quote refers to the 2013 Teacher Survey, in which 27.8% of teachers agreed or strongly agreed with the statement, “Overall, my district is a good place to work and learn.”  72.2% strongly disagreed, disagreed, or were neutral.

But some “I love my job” members, like those in the “Emperor’s New Clothes,” heap praise on the Superintendent, his administration, and the policies they promote, for personal preservation or political gain.

Saying everything is wonderful, either out of fear or for political gain, does not solve problems, or help children. And it does not gain the support and trust of the community. It is AstroTurf.

Nakia Towns, KCS “Chief Accountability Officer,” was overheard in the ladies restroom during a recent BOE meeting praising the formation of the “I love my job” group. Towns tweeted on Sept. 10 “We need TFA (Teach for America) in Knox County Schools.” Love your job? You may not be able to keep it.

The people who love their jobs left at the end of the regular meeting. Not one of them stayed to hear the tenure revocation appeal of KCS teacher Richard Suttle. He loves his job, too, especially since he nearly lost it.

(ICYMI – Dr. McIntyre tried to appeal the decision of a hearing officer to reinstate a KCS teacher who had been placed on administrative leave last year, but the BOE unanimously upheld the hearing officer’s decision.)

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