Middle 1: What Government Really Does

Former governor Bill Haslam at an event at Rocky Fork State Park

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.

Newfound Gap at the Great Smoky Mountains NATIONAL Park

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.

Nashville’s Parthenon is part of Centennial Park, which is a LOCAL park.

1. Parks

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.

An interstate under construction

2. Roads

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

3. Schools

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!


Members of the Knoxville police department

4. 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.

This man works for Tennessee 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 (one of those companies is called Tennessee Trash). 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.


Question Number Three:

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

In Bristol, the government
provides and treats water

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.

Now let’s move onto a section called “The Other Constitution in Your Life.”