I firmly believe that Chattanooga 2.0 is the single most critical movement happening in Chattanooga, and will be for the next 20 years. Nothing is more important to our local future than making Chattanooga the smartest city in the South.
Why? I have been in Chattanooga all but four of my fifty-one years (and all of my working life), and spent most of that time as both an employer and a community volunteer. That’s given me years to ponder our various problems and challenges, through multiple lenses. I have served on ten local non-profit boards over the course of the last twenty-five years. Over that time span, I have arrived at one ineluctable conclusion: the mother of all our problems is education (or the lack of it).
It is no secret that quality education- from early childhood through post-secondary education- provides a wellspring of benefits, not only to the child (or adult) being educated, but to everyone around that person. A person with a good education generally makes better decisions, has more job skills (thus more earning power), and has better overall quality of life. A city with a great educational system creates a rising tide that lifts all boats, and pays all sorts of dividends, seen and unseen, immediate and deferred.
Conversely, a city with poor educational systems fails our children and fails us all. Those with poor educations are easily mislead, and often make poor decisions- in life, in the marketplace, and at the ballot box. They are difficult to employ in our modern economy, generally earn far less, are more likely to commit crimes, and lean on our public safety nets at a much higher rate. In short, low performing schools hurt communities.
And while this has always been the case in general terms, the changing nature of our economy has now made it more critical than ever. Money and talent are flowing at an increasing pace to larger metros, because the nature of work is changing. Creative, well-educated workers are in high demand. If Chattanooga is going to remain economically viable, we’ve got to either “grow our own” or attract new residents from outside (and I know which of those I’d prefer). We are very fortunate to have a great strategic location, natural beauty, and a low cost of living to help us compete on the national stage in attracting new businesses. But those assets aren’t worth much but tourism without a workforce that is ready to fill the jobs needed to drive a company’s growth. Many local companies have recently been unable to fill positions locally and have had to advertise for talent in other parts of the country, while we have other local residents that are languishing in poverty, unemployable in the modern economy. That is just unacceptable, and it needs to change. The answer: better education.
Making Chattanooga the smartest city in the South won’t just happen with well-wishes and good intentions… It demands a fully comprehensive approach that considers the many complex pieces in context.
But making Chattanooga the smartest city in the South won’t just happen with well-wishes and good intentions. It’s worse than that, actually: the truth is, a lot of very smart and capable people have already spent a tremendous amount of time and resources working on improving our local educational systems over the last 20 years, with mixed success at best. As frustrating as that’s been, it led to the crucial realization that this problem can’t be solved with a piecemeal tactics, just working on one aspect of the problem. It demands a fully comprehensive approach that considers the many complex pieces in context.
And that’s exactly what the Chattanooga 2.0 does. The plan is both broad and deep, and there isn’t an angle it doesn’t address, no gap it doesn’t bridge. From early childhood through post-secondary education, the CHA 2.0 has a plan and a prescription, and each step was carefully developed and considered with the rest in mind, with a broad range of community participants, including the partners and resources needed to make sure it’s successful. And this must be said too: a lot of our problems in Chattanooga stem from historical legacy of racism and inequity. Well, education is THE great leveler in society, and we can point back to the lack of educational equity in Chattanooga to see the origins of those problems. To fix this, we must work to make sure ALL schools in Chattanooga are excellent, not just a few. The Chattanooga 2.0 plan addresses this problem as well.
We are at a historic crossroads in Chattanooga. The interests of business and industry are converging with the interests of the educational establishment, nonprofits, and government, who now all realize that doubling down on education and the Chattanooga 2.0 plan is the best investment strategy we can pursue. And we must pursue it, because without that primary investment in educational excellence, and the commitment to this plan, all other community investments will be largely wasted.
It will not be easy: maintaining the necessary focus and commitment to CHA 2.0, and changing our culture to more highly value educational attainment is a herculean task. But it is absolutely crucial if the residents of our area are to enjoy a secure, prosperous future.
Tim Kelly is a Chattanooga area entrepreneur and owner of Kelly Subaru. He serves on the Chattanooga 2.0 Steering Committee.