An advocate’s take: where the Tennessee gubernatorial candidates stand on early ed

Katie Growden (right) and Tara Hurdle, the president of the Nashville Area Association for the Education of Young Children, attend the 2018 Tennessee Gubernatorial Education Forum in Nashville on Jan. 23.

“You can do it.” “You’ve got this.” “Yes!”

Positive self-talk has become an irreplaceable tool in the past year as I’ve embarked on my exciting journey as a Save the Children Action Network (SCAN) volunteer. This Tuesday was no exception, as I sat in the stands among hundreds of other Tennesseans who came out for the 2018 Tennessee Gubernatorial Education Forum. I wasn’t “Mom,” or “Katie,” or “just an early childhood educator.” I was there as an advocate!

For 40-odd years, I received my political news in the “Cliff’s Notes” version: reading the highlights and watching network newscasts. It’s almost embarrassing to say that I was 46 years old before I watched any type of candidate forum in its entirety, let alone attend a live event where you can’t listen from the kitchen as you grab a snack.

No more.

I have a voice. I am part of a force way greater than myself, and I will make sure that every person who represents me in our government knows the crucial importance of prioritizing our nation’s children.

Education is undoubtedly vital to the life of every human, but no part of education is more influential on life’s trajectory than what’s learned in the first five years. We need to be diligently focused on ensuring that every child has opportunities in those formative years, which will allow them to grow into everything they should be. Because I feel so passionately about early education, I listened intently to each candidate’s response to questions about pre-K and early education. I was pleasantly surprised to hear that all the candidates expressed familiarity with the topic, or at least the hot-button issues that have created controversy in recent years such as charter schools, vouchers, etc. I was hoping to hear that each desired to continue expanding pre-K accessibility across the state; what I heard instead was a mixed bag.

Throughout the debate, I was curious to know if the candidates were familiar with the fact that “high-quality” in an early education programs look entirely different from any other stage of education. This uncertainty made the use of the word “babysitting” (referencing pre-K programs) all the more concerning! What might appear as “just playing” may (likely) be an experience-rich environment in which children have opportunities to explore concepts using hands-on activities. As a professional who has invested in an education degree, I’m sensitive to any suggestion that a developmentally appropriate classroom could appear to be “babysitting” to an untrained eye. If that’s any indication of a candidate’s view of pre-K, I think we have more work to do.

Yet all in all, I am optimistic that each of the candidates, in both parties, will prioritize a healthy education budget to better fund Tennessee’s schools. I sincerely hope that early education and pre-K will be recognized as equally important as primary and secondary schools, and not auxiliary programming. 

Thanks to SCAN, I’m confident each candidate will know that we insist on doing better for Tennessee’s littlest learners, and I am thrilled to be a part of the process!