Steal This Platform

Ideas and solutions for Hamilton County

Voters will decide the next slate of Hamilton County leadership on August 2. A wide range of offices will appear on the ballot. There are contested races for school board, the county commission, sheriff, and many others. This election is an opportunity to implement an ambitious agenda that will improve citizens’ quality of life.

Metro Ideas Project staff has prepared a platform of practical ideas and policy solutions that can help officials address the challenges facing Hamilton County. Our platform rests on four pillars: education reform, economic development, government accountability, and inclusion.

We encourage candidates to adopt these ideas and steal this platform as they prepare to serve Hamilton County’s citizens in the coming term.


Modernize School Spending

Appropriate education dollars to match student needs

Equitable school funding gives students, regardless of background, the same chance to succeed in the classroom. More dollars don’t necessarily guarantee better test scores, but when schools are short on money, they may struggle to create optimal learning environments.

Some students cost more to educate than others. A one-size-fits-all budgeting process does not account for the educational needs of a large, diverse student population.

Hamilton County officials should implement a student-based funding model that ensures students have equal opportunities in the classroom. This effort should be paired with greater principal autonomy to determine how school dollars are spent.

Diversify Our Schools

Redraw school zones for greater socioeconomic diversity

Concentrated poverty in nearly half of Hamilton County schools, as well as homogenous student populations, contributes to gaps in academic achievement and educational attainment. County officials should diversify our schools to improve student outcomes and benefit all students, regardless of race or socioeconomic status.

While race cannot be used to determine school enrollment, socioeconomic status can. There are several methods worth exploring:

  • School zone boundaries can be redrawn to achieve more diverse student bodies.
  • District-wide school choice could be paired with algorithms to ensure diversity goals are met for every school.
  • Diversity-focused enrollment could be used to create magnet and charter schools.

Regardless of method, school segregation is one of the most critical challenges facing our district. Officials should face it with a community-driven approach that meets the diverse needs of our students.

Expand Summer Reading

Create a summer reading program for middle and high school students

The state of Tennessee has partnered with Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library to improve third-graders’ literacy rates. Nearly 70 percent of Hamilton County children are enrolled in the program.

County officials should build on this model and establish a summer reading program that provides free books to middle and high school students. Summer reading has been shown to have a significant, positive effect on literacy rates and overall academic success among students of low socioeconomic statuses.


Subsidies for Workforce Development

Help small businesses train workers in new skills

While major employers like Volkswagen and McKee Foods continually invest in their workforces, smaller companies struggle to let workers off to develop skills and pursue additional training. Yet these new skills could boost companies’ bottom lines down the road and contribute to higher wages.

A county workforce development incentive would provide small businesses tax credits to offset the cost of training workers and loss of production. Industry certifications are valuable, transferable, and wealth-generating. They can spur entrepreneurship and boost salaries for workers.

An “earn-as-you-learn” model would pair older and familiar apprenticeships with modern, equity-focused policies. When combined with other economic programs, these subsidies would be part of a comprehensive economic system that helps modernize our workforce and allows it to adapt to changing criteria and skill requirements.

Tax Preparation and Refund Assistance

Partner with accounting students and nonprofits to provide free tax-filing services

Federal tax refunds are often a much-needed inflow of cash for many residents. Yet tax preparation can be daunting and difficult to get right.

This is unfortunate because predatory businesses often use tax season to take advantage of low-income residents. These companies offer tax form assistance in exchange for a large cut of an individual’s return.

A better alternative would be for the county and its municipalities to partner with a local university’s accounting students and other organizations to provide free tax preparation and wealth-management services. This program would help low-income residents get their full returns, provide real-world training for students, and give nonprofits leads on residents to work with on other wealth-building strategies.

Protect Workers From Forced Arbitration

Limit forced arbitration agreements by county contractors and vendors

The Supreme Court has determined that employers can take away an employee’s right to a court trial under the Federal Arbitration Act. However, local governments can set guidelines for how these clauses are implemented, enforced, and reported by contractors and vendors.

Hamilton County can become a leader in worker protections. It can refuse to do business with companies that put forced arbitration clauses in employment contracts. Alternatively, it could require vendors to disclose its arbitration clauses or require companies to issue waivers from these clauses for county-specific jobs.


Enact an Open Data Policy

Establish guidelines requiring county offices to make data available to the public

Hamilton County manages large troves of data about its operations. Little of this information is publicly available or presented in formats that can be viewed by the average person. However, data about the county’s finances, schools, and services has value to citizens and the government itself.

The county should adopt an open data policy that outlines how offices and departments can make this information available. A policy would prompt the publication of data that improves government efficiency, bolsters accountability, and promotes civic engagement.

Tax Incentive Transparency

Require governing boards to publish quarterly reports on property tax incentives

Hamilton County and the city of Chattanooga provide property tax abatements to more than fifty entities. These agreements are often contentious amongst citizens and some local officials. There is little public information available about them, and the companies that receive them have few reporting requirements.

The County Commission, in concert with city officials and related governing boards, should enact a resolution requiring regular updates on tax abatements and subsidies. The information should be published on a standalone website and updated at least quarterly.

One model for this is a joint initiative from the city of Memphis, Shelby County, and the area’s industrial development board. EDGE provides clear data, records, and information about these agreements—their cost to taxpayers, as well as their benefits to the region.


Provide a Welcoming and Inclusive Community

Ensure county resources are available for non-English speakers

The rate of small business creation has been declining in most American cities. When business creation stalls, so does community growth. However, immigrants are nearly twice as likely to start their own businesses than native-born Americans. We should be focused on providing a welcoming and inclusive community for these entrepreneurs.

Hamilton County should implement strategies that support inclusion. Local government agencies should offer translation services that make its resources available in other languages, online and off. The county should create an office that works with nonprofit organizations to coordinate immigrant inclusion initiatives such as naturalization.

Create Trauma-Informed Schools

Train teachers and administrative staff to work with students who have had adverse childhood experiences

Many students have adverse childhood experiences that can follow them into adulthood. But not every student has access to resources that support his or her needs, whether they be emotional, social, or behavioral.

Hamilton County should provide additional staff and training so schools may better provide aid and intervention to these students. Trauma-informed schools can create more supportive learning environments that are respectful of a student’s diverse experiences.

A community school model can provide students and families counseling, mental health screenings, and social and behavioral support. A school capable of addressing a wider range of needs helps ensure students attend with a readiness to learn.

End Zero-Tolerance Discipline in Schools

Adopt discipline policies that approach conflict through nonpunitive methods

Zero-tolerance discipline practices tend to be racially biased and cause retraumatization of many students. Schools with concentrated poverty have much higher rates of suspension and expulsion. In Hamilton County, black students are up to nine times more likely to be kicked out of school than those of other races.

These practices should be eliminated in our schools and replaced with healthier, more equitable methods. Restorative justice seeks to respect student experiences and approaches conflict through nonpunitive methods like mediation. These methods would enforce a culture that respects students, regardless of race or income.

Further reading

Open Hamilton

An open data policy would improve transparency, efficiency, and accountability.