Is This the Year for Vouchers in Tennessee?

directory-466935_1280by Anne-Marie Farmer

Which way will Tennessee’s legislature go?  There are two bills moving through the legislature.  One bill would make any child with an IEP eligible for a voucher. There is no accountability required.  The second bill is geared toward students in struggling schools.

In this post, Anne Marie Farmer explains the impact of the bills.  This is serious for Tennessee’s public schools.  It could be sad for their children.

Is This the Year for Vouchers? by Education Director Anne-Marie Farmer

Two damaging voucher proposals have been moving through the Tennessee Legislature this session. While each would siphon money away from cash-strapped Tennessee public schools, the two bills are different in scope and in students targeted.

The broadest in scope is the bill commonly referred to as the “IEP voucher” bill. House Bill 138 makes any student with an Individualized Education Program (IEP) eligible for the voucher program. IEP (programs or plans) impact students ranging from those severely disabled to those high-achieving and receiving some special education service such as speech therapy, for example. There is no limit on the number of vouchers available, and currently about 120,000 students meet the IEP standard for eligibility. This means the potential shift in public funds away from public schools is tremendous. The bill states that a parent of any child with an IEP, in exchange for a promise NOT to enroll the child in public school, may have state education funds deposited into a bank account the parent controls. The parent is to use the funds to educate the child in some fashion, whether by enrolling in private school, purchasing an online learning program, hiring a tutor, or some other means.

HB 138 specifically states that there will be NO regulations or standards applied to a participating educational provider. It does not require private schools accepting this voucher to be accredited or have any operating history. A provider need not actually provide the services called for in the child’s IEP. The bill calls for NO testing or reporting of educational results. The proposal is based on a Florida program called the McKay Scholarship, which has been around for about 16 years and has spawned tremendous abuse, fraud, and woefully lacking upstart “schools” (run by people with no educational qualifications) in Florida, as outlined by Tennessee Education Report HERE.

Even with this terrible track record, HB 138 seems to have momentum. It passed out of the House Education Committee for Instruction and Programs and on April 16 it was assigned to the Finance, Ways & Means Subcommittee. Its companion bill, SB 27 was placed on Senate Regular Calendar for April 21, 2015.

Another voucher bill, SB 999, has the support of Governor Haslam and has already passed the state Senate on a vote of 23 to 9 and been referred to the House Desk; as of April 15 and 16 action had been deferred in House  Finance, Ways & Means Subcommittee to April 15, 2015 and sponsors had been added, withdrawn, and added. In this legislation, the total number of vouchers is capped at 5,000 for the 2015-2016 school year and increases to 20,000 by 2018. If these numbers are met, then by 2018, $70 million a year will be taken away from our public schools and shifted to private schools.

Under this proposal, students who are zoned to a school with test scores in the bottom 5 percent of the state and who qualify for free or reduced lunch would be in the first priority group to receive vouchers. If the total available vouchers aren’t used by students with those qualifications, then the remaining vouchers will be made available to any student who qualifies for free or reduced lunch and lives in a county with at least one school that scores in the bottom 5 percent of the state, regardless of the achievement level of the student’s zoned school. Participating private schools can apply their usual admission criteria to a voucher student, and are free to turn away struggling students.

At the beginning of the session, a third voucher bill was proposed, one that would allow any school district in the state to offer vouchers if the school board opted to do so, with no limitations on what students would be eligible or the number of vouchers available. This bill was sometimes referred to as the “Williamson County Vouchers” bill because its proponents touted alleged cost savings to fast-growing Williamson County Schools if the county stopped building new schools and instead sent students to private schools via vouchers. In reality, the cost of vouchers would strain local school and county budgets across the state. According to Charles Curtiss, executive director of Tennessee County Commissioners Association (TCCA), “Vouchers, at the end of the day, would be the greatest [financial] nightmare counties ever faced.”

Make no mistake, these visions—over a hundred thousand available vouchers with no meaningful standards or oversight, or vouchers available statewide to any and every child—are not outliers. Pervasive availability is the ultimate goal of voucher advocates, and it’s where they hope any voucher law will ultimately take Tennessee, regardless of how limited its scope as currently presented. Voucher proponents will be back again and again to expand any voucher law that passes. This despite the use of private school vouchers for years in other states without any kind of track record of improved educational outcomes. Vouchers will accomplish something—they will provide tax money support to struggling private schools, which will then be free to use public dollars to teach a wide array of political and religious doctrines, and will not have to adhere to the same academic standards that are expected in public schools.

Tennessee notoriously underfunds its schools, ranking 49 out of 50 nationally in investment in public education. Hamilton County schools filed a lawsuit this year against the state for its failure to adequately fund schools, and other districts may soon join in the suit. Governor Bill Haslam maintains that there is simply not enough money to fund BEP 2.0, the state’s own formula for determining how much it costs to provide a basic education. It is unconscionable that at the same time he makes these claims, our state government is cutting public school budgets to pay for voucher schemes, which have not proven successful in raising student achievement. Please contact your lawmakers today and ask them to say NO to school vouchers.

Posted in Tennessee, Uncategorized, Vouchers.


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