Driving home from Kingsport last week, I topped a rise near the Gray exit of Interstate 26 and saw in the distance one of my favorite images: the distinctive shape of Hump Mountain, clearly outlined in the crisp spring air.
This morning, I walked out of the house in the early morning sunlight and reveled in the early blooming Siberian iris, rhododendron, peony and spiderwort in the yard. With the rose petals incipient inside their buds, the iris, peony and rhodies days from full display, and the greening mountains still sharp and clear, it is difficult to imagine myself living in a place more blessed with natural beauty than Southern Appalachia.
I find myself stirred by the same gratitude during the colorful crispness of fall, the snow-laden stillness of winter and the fecundity of summer. Anyone who longs to hear “the rivers clap their hands” and “the mountains sing together for joy” need search no farther than here.
Yet many who might otherwise prefer to migrate to or remain in this region find themselves facing difficult decisions. I was reminded of this fact in perusing this week’s edition, which in addition to honoring the indispensable role of motherhood has a significant focus on education. It’s graduation season, with East Tennessee State University and Milligan College kicking things off locally this weekend.
Friday, the lovely and talented Angela and I will drive west to Jefferson City and celebrate the accomplishments of the young scholar, Sydney, as she graduates summa cum laude from Carson-Newman University.
The educational accomplishments of people like Meredith Hardy, Donna Hardy and Sarah Elliott (page 1), Serena Clark (2), Michelle Sparks (3) and the academically minded seniors of Science Hill’s boys’ soccer team (page B2, Johnson City News) are inspiring.
That we produce and attract (for college) smart people in this region is indisputable. It is also insufficient, when it comes to education and workforce preparation, to produce the most attractive climate for jobs and investment in the region. And it is jobs and investment that will allow the many brilliant and talented young people who grow up here or come here for college and fall in love with the place (quite naturally) to remain here and forge a good life for themselves and their families.
We have the raw material for this. But anyone turning raw materials into valued works of art, for instance, knows the final product can only be its best if adequate resources are dedicated to the task. One cannot produce a fine piece of pottery on a lousy wheel, or paint a masterpiece with cheap paint and brushes.
Yet in our seemingly obsessive drive to boast the lowest tax rates in the known universe, we have in this region – and in this state, frankly – hampered our ability to create top quality educational and workforce development systems. And while rock bottom taxes and cost of living may lure a few employers in the short run, the degree to which they result in underfunding education will damage our prospects in the long run.
The good news is, we have educational systems and institutions around here whose leaders already have learned to do more with less. We have such low tax rates that some reasonable increases ought to be bearable by our citizens, and can keep us on the competitive end in attracting investment.
Best of all, we have the raw materials – the talented people and the beautiful place – to forge a vibrant, sustainable future for this blessed corner of God’s creation. If Meredith Hardy, Sydney, Serena Clark or any of the countless other talented youngsters around here love this area enough to want to stay here, or leave awhile before returning, we cannot scrimp on funding education.
All the beautiful mountains and music in the world aren’t worth much if the local economy’s lousy, and poorly performing, underfunded schools today pretty well guarantee a lousy economy tomorrow. We’re not there now (though things need to improve). Let’s not go down that road.