By Steve Hunley

The Knox County Board of Education recently extended the International Baccalaureate (IB) program.  Ordinarily, the board would deserve commendation for such a thing; however, in this instance, they have created an unequal educational opportunity.  By doing so, they have invited scrutiny they cannot bear.

From everything I have seen, the IB program is an outstanding educational program, which encourages both personal and academic achievement.  For one thing, this program stresses problem solving and critical thinking.  The public school system, like much of government, has all too often stressed the lowest common denominator.  Slogans such as “Excellence for Every Child” sounds wonderful, but ignores the reality that every human being has certain abilities, while others may have their own strengths in other areas.  There is a real need in our public schools to teach critical thinking, as well as provide a learning environment for advanced students, or those students who may excel in certain subjects.

Several years ago, then-superintendent Jim McIntyre urged the board to create an IB program centered at West High School and Bearden Middle School.  Thus far, the program hasn’t caught up with the cost of some 500,000 taxpayer dollars.  This year 13 students will graduate with IB degrees.  Yet, for most Knox County students, the program remains out of reach.  Students in South Knoxville, Gibbs, Carter, Halls, Powell, Karns and Farragut find it difficult to get into the program due to the number of students at West High School. Basically, what has happened is the IB program has become a private school ensconced in a public school.  If you happen to live in the area feeding into West High School and have a child in the program, you are mighty lucky.  Yet there is nobody who believes every talented student happens to be zoned to attend either Bearden Middle School or West High School.

In effect, in my opinion, the Knox County Board of Education, originally at the urging of Jim McIntyre, created an unequal educational opportunity under the law.  The Office of Civil Rights will not care whether Knox County offers the IB program or not; what they will care about is whether we are offering educational opportunities to students in one location without offering those same opportunities to students everywhere else.  All it will take is one parent to file suit and the likely result will be either close the program or extend it everywhere in Knox County.  There is yet another legal question that puts the taxpayers of Knox County at risk; the contract for the IB program requires five years’ participation and another parent who feels his/her child was cheated will sue.  McIntyre was notorious for pushing programs without providing all the details and the board was equally infamous for rubber-stamping whatever he wanted and this sort of thing is the end result.

Still, the Knox County school system could fix this problem without asking for tens of millions of new tax dollars (which they would not get in any event), hundreds of new employees and new school buildings.  In this age of technology, why has nobody suggested simply allowing students all around the county to participate in the IB program through distance-based learning?  The University of Tennessee did it for years.  The school system could work out the fine details over a relatively short period of time and end any discrimination in providing unequal educational opportunities.  In fact, over a period of months, the school system could build a matrix to indicate every class offered by the Knox County school system at each school and offer those same classes all across the county to interested students.

The school system cannot provide excellence for every child and we all know it; what it can do is provide the opportunity for every child to achieve excellence.  For those students with the aptitude and ability, the IB program represents a real opportunity to achieve excellence if the Knox County school system wants to think outside the box; educators need to think more like entrepreneurs and less like bureaucrats.  This solution won’t cost millions of dollars; it will not require a slew of new hires or new buildings.  What it will require is some critical thinking and utilizing resources already available to us.  To do otherwise may prove more costly than we can bear.  Nor should we tolerate a system that insists upon providing unequal educational opportunities.  There are bright and eager youngsters all across this county, and they all deserve an equal opportunity to achieve their own brand of excellence.