Summary of recent Tennessee newspaper editorials


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Recent editorials from Tennessee newspapers:

March 9

News Sentinel, Knoxville, Tennessee, on the Smokey Mountain smelter cleanup:

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency conducted an initial emergency cleanup at Knox County's only Superfund site that ended three years ago, but since then little progress has been made to finish the job.

The federal agency has an obligation to the people living in this economically disadvantaged area of South Knoxville to get the cleanup back on track as soon as possible.

Smokey Mountain Smelters has been a danger to the community since it opened in 1979. Since it shut down in 1994, abandoned to time and the elements, the huge, crumbling smelter building became what is known in legal terms as an attractive nuisance for children in the area. A slag heap on the property leached toxic heavy metals and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) into the soil and an unnamed tributary of Flenniken Creek. The metals include aluminum, arsenic and cadmium, all of which can cause health problems, especially with long-term exposure.

Almost 1,000 people, many of them children, live in the Montgomery Village housing project, which is located across a railroad track from the smelter site. Many other neighbors live in poverty. Children who live in and around Montgomery Village have used the vacant smelter property as a playground for years.

The EPA placed the former aluminum recycling smelter on its National Priority List, commonly called the Superfund list, in 2010. In the initial cleanup, workers tore down the dilapidated main building and removed or covered the toxic waste at the site.

Once the immediate danger had been eliminated, work on the project ground nearly to a halt. The EPA was supposed to complete a study evaluating the site and recommending next steps in the cleanup process by the beginning of 2013. Two years later, the report has not been finished.

Rusty Kestle, the EPA's remedial project manager for the site, told the News Sentinel the report has been delayed because of technical issues with groundwater sampling and a shortage of funding. The report, he said, should be out later this year, with a decision on future work at the site to be made afterwards.

The site is part of a decades-long legacy of pollution and neglect that has plagued the people who live in the Maryville Pike corridor.

Smokey Mountain Smelters, run by Rotary Furnace Inc., racked up numerous violations during its 15-year lifespan. One of the operators was David Witherspoon Jr., who also ran the David Witherspoon Inc. recycling facility in Vestal and the Witherspoon Landfill, a graveyard strewn with radioactive industrial equipment adjacent to the smelter property.

A generation of South Knoxville residents has been put at risk from the contaminants at the site, an intolerable situation that must be remedied. As shown by the emergency cleanup of the site, the EPA is capable of swift action at times. That is one reason the delay in finishing the cleanup is as puzzling as it is frustrating to South Knoxville residents. The EPA needs to get back on track to finish the work so the largely low-income families in the area can live in a healthier community.


March 5

The Commercial Appeal, Memphis, Tennessee, on school voucher program:

We understand the apprehension in some circles that a school voucher program would hurt public schools by draining away crucial finances and the best students.

Shelby County Commissioner David Reaves, who also is a former member of the Shelby County Schools Board, is emblematic of that feeling. Wednesday, he successfully pushed for the commission's Legislative Affairs Committee to adopt a resolution that asks the Tennessee legislature to vote against any school voucher program bill.

Reaves, the resolution's sponsor, said money for public education should not go to private schools and that a voucher program would be detrimental to the public school system. The commission is scheduled to consider the resolution Monday.

We have used this space to support vouchers. Students stuck in attendance zones populated by continuingly failing schools, most in poor neighborhoods, should have an opportunity to attend a good school. Tuition vouchers that can be used to attend a private school is one way to increase education opportunities for those students.

Still, we think the legislature should move cautiously on the voucher front. One voucher bill advancing through the legislature this session seems to be taking that approach.

The so-called "opportunity scholarship" legislation sponsored by Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, passed a House education subcommittee 7-1 on Tuesday. The companion Senate bill was approved 8-1 in the Education Committee Wednesday. The legislation would give parents the option to move a child from a failing public school to a private school. It is similar to a measure Republican Gov. Bill Haslam proposed last year that failed.

Under Dunn's proposal, eligibility would be opened to low-income students in districts that have a school in the bottom 5 percent. No more than 5,000 scholarships could be awarded for the 2015-2016 school year, 7,500 for the 2016-2017 school year, 10,000 for the 2017-2018 school year and not more than 20,000 for the 2018-2019 school year and thereafter.

Reaves said students would get a $6,500 voucher under the proposed legislation. Since state education dollars follow students, that is funding leaving public schools.

Prudence would dictate that the state take it slow on vouchers, ideally capping the scholarships at 10,000 so that a thorough assessment of the program can be garnered for a couple of years.

This not only is important from an academic achievement standpoint, but also to make sure that opportunists smelling a way to get rich off government money do not set up inadequate schools.

That is not meant to be a slap at the established parochial and private schools that are doing a great job educating youngsters, but no one should forget the day care scandals that rocked Memphis in the 1990s.

Also, going slow will let the state judge whether the vouchers will give impoverished students a realistic shot at attending some of the state's more expensive private schools

Across the nation, vouchers have proved to be a controversial weapon in the fight to give all children a chance at a quality education.

We believe the effort to promote school choice is good. Yet, we also think the state should not jump whole hog into a voucher program until a full assessment of its effectiveness can be completed.


March 8

Daily News Journal, Murfreesboro, Tennessee, on Tennessee Promise applicants:

Qualification for free enrollment in two free years of post-secondary education continues, and more than 38,000 seniors still are eligible for the inaugural year of the Tennessee Promise program. Tennessee Promise officials indicate that 65 percent of students who applied for Tennessee Promise completed the long Free Application for Federal Student Aid form, and they also noted that this have may been the most difficult part of the qualifying process.

Rutherford County was in line with the state average rate, officials said, with 63 percent of applicants completing the FAFSA form. A total of 1,623 seniors in Rutherford County still are eligible for the Tennessee Promise program.

Completion of the FAFSA form is important for the Tennessee Promise initiative because it will provide "last dollar" assistance to high school graduates to attend either a community college or a Tennessee College of Applied Technology.

The "last dollar" aspect of the program means that the state will pay the tuition and fees that other financial aid, including federal assistance, does not pay.

Students still have to complete other requirements to qualify for Tennessee Promise. These include another mandatory meeting with mentors and completing eight hours of volunteer work.

Current estimates are that 18,000 high school graduates will participate in Tennessee Promise during its first year.

Some students who applied may not complete all requirements to qualify, and some may choose to attend four-year colleges or pursue other objectives.

Tennessee Promise represents an effort not only to help students and their families to pay for postsecondary education but also to interest students whose families may not have any postsecondary degrees to become the first in their families to do so.

The initiative is part of the overall effort of Gov. Bill Haslam and state government to increase the percentage of state residents who have postsecondary degrees and make the state's workforce better equipped for 21st century jobs.

Despite the presence of Middle Tennessee State University, the Smyrna campus of Motlow State Community College and a Tennessee College of Applied Technology in Rutherford County, the county still has a lower percentage of residents with postsecondary degrees than some surrounding communities.

We encourage all county seniors who have qualified for Tennessee Promise, so far, to see the process through and begin their postsecondary education.

These seniors, their families, the community and the state all will benefit if they do.


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