The key to economic development and success after graduation begins before children ever step foot in kindergarten, said U.S. Congressman Zach Wamp, a Republican primary candidate for governor.
“I feel if school systems got better readers going into kindergarten, we’ll be better off,” he told school officials gathered for an educational round table at the Blount County Public Library.
Testing students in third grade to ensure they hit certain bench marks in reading achievement is too late, Wamp said. “If we don’t benchmark readers until third grade, we’re not going to catch up,” he said.
Wamp visited Blount County as part of his swing through East Tennessee.
Another issue Wamp said he’s hearing from principals is the need for money and resources. Wamp said strong public schools are needed and private school institutions should be respected as well. “Public education has to be funded adequately,” he said. “Make sure the K-12 commitment is there.”
The congressman said his niche since he was elected 15 years ago has been economic development. He helped orchestrate the Tennessee Technology Corridor that included Oak Ridge.
“Oak Ridge would not be the economic engine it is without the quality of education there.”
Wamp said one way of generating funding for education is to work with foundations. “Right now there is a pent up desire by foundations that want to help,” he said. “Make sure there are foundation dollars available for teaching children to read.”
The congressman said everyone in the room, including the directors of the Alcoa, Maryville and Blount County school systems, know the state isn’t going to raise taxes or create an income tax to supplement education. This makes foundations an attractive source for helping underwrite the cost of teaching children to read. “If they enter school reading, they have a better chance,” he said. “The funding issue is only going to get more difficult.”
Wamp said another area of education he thinks is important is creating partnerships between high schools and community colleges. Such efforts can help students begin preparing for their careers as early as the ninth grade.
While some consider education just another expensive part of government, Wamp said he agrees with those who see a good educational system as a vital part of a good quality of life. “We need a governor who has the attitude that we can change the cultural attitude of what education means,” he said.
Wamp said education is the key to economic development, just as the booming economy of the 1990s was brought about because the United States led the way in developing software and computer innovations.
As industry is attracted to the state because of the more educated workforce, more investment will generate more revenue to the state. “A growing state economy will lift all ships. We have quality of life,” he said. “We need to educate the workforce.”
The schools directors each shared their thoughts on how education would play a role in the gubernatorial election. Rob Britt, Blount County Schools director, said education is paramount in this election cycle. “It’s the No. 1 issue,” he said. “So much of what we do is preparing the workforce of the future.”
Tom Shamblin, director of Alcoa City Schools, said education is going to be one of the most important components of any candidate’s campaign. “If they don’t make it a component, they won’t be a candidate for long,” Shamblin said.
Stephanie Thompson, director of Maryville City Schools, said that with the increased standards of the Tennessee Diploma Project, education is going to be a very important issue. “I think the funding will be a priority,” she said. “Unless we pay teachers at a competitive level, we won’t recruit the best candidates, and they’ll pursue jobs in other professions.”