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TN History for Kids

Middle One: What government really does

These two officers work for the Knoxville police

In the Basic Civics section, we made a few broad statements about what government does.

Now we are going to get into a bit more detail by answering three questions.

Question Number One:

Which things are run by the federal government, which things by the state government, and which things by county and city governments?

Let's talk about parks, roads, schools and law enforcement.

This swinging bridge is in Fall Creek Falls State Park


Usually you can tell which government runs it by the title of the park.

The federal government runs national parks such as the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Cherokee National Forest. The state runs state parks, such as Fall Creek Falls State Park and Norris Dam State Park. County and local governments run places such as Overton Park in Memphis, Percy Warner Park in Nashville and Lakeshore Park in Knoxville.

From this vantage point in Campbell County, you
can see Interstate 75 -- a federal highway


Every road in Tennessee is designated as a local road, a state highway, or a federal highway. The only thing this really tells you is which government (and which type of tax) paid for its construction.

National interstate highways such as I-75 and I-40 and federal highways such as Highway 70, 431 and 411 were mostly funded by federal tax dollars. State highways were funded by state tax dollars. Local roads (the ones that go through neighborhoods, for instance) were generally built by local governments and paid for by local tax dollars.

Students at a Tennessee public school
in about 1900
PHOTO: TN State Library and Archives


The state government is generally not in the business of running public schools, but is in the business of overseeing Tennessee's public schools and making sure each county enforces state laws related to schools. Each county is required to run a public school system through an elected school board and an appointed school superintendent (or director).

Some counties have only one school system. Some have as many as six!

Law Enforcement

State troopers (brown uniforms) work for the state. Police officers (blue uniforms) work for local governments.

Question Number Two:

What about the trash cans people take down to the street? Does the government pick those up?

Trash pickup is not a state government function; it's a local (city or county) government function. In many cities, especially the large ones, people who do curbside trash pickup work for the local government. Sometimes they work for companies hired by the government to pick up the trash.

However, many people in Tennessee live in areas where the government does not provide trash pickup. Those people pay a private company to get their trash.

Knoxville is an interesting example. If you live within the city limits of Knoxville, the government comes to your house once a week to get your trash. But if you live just outside the city limits, the government doesn't get your trash; you have to pay a company to get it. And by the way, the city limits of Knoxville in some places go right through existing neighborhoods. So there are places where the city provides trash collection to a house on one side of the street, but not to the house on the other side of the street.

In Bristol, the government
provides and treats water

Question Number Three:

What about the drinking water that comes out of the tap at home? Does the government make that?

Drinking water is also one of those things the government sometimes provides and sometimes doesn't.

In most of Tennessee's cities and towns, the government, or a government-related entity, provides drinking water. But in the city of Chattanooga, a private company called Tennessee American Water provides the water that comes out of the tap.

So now you understand that the "business of government" isn't all that simple, let's move onto a section called "the other constitution in your life."