Vouchers Tennessee Style

by Anne-Marie Farmer

Evidently vouchers are good for some places but not others in Tennessee.  Read the latest proposal!  No matter how vouchers are justified, they wreck havoc on communities and do not improve academic achievement.


            The start of the Tennessee legislative session sometimes feels like the movie Groundhog Day, with voucher proponents bringing legislation every year to shift public dollars away from public school budgets and toward private schools. This year, voucher advocates are energized by the choice of Besty DeVos as federal Secretary of Education by President Donald Trump. Ms. DeVos, a longtime Republican donor and champion of vouchers and charter schools, was a highly controversial pick, and it remains to be seen whether she will use her new position to advance her belief that public school systems should be replaced with a market-driven educational model.

            Last February, a voucher bill from Rep. Dunn (R-Knoxville) stalled when Rep. Dunn realized he did not have enough support in the House of Representative for it to pass. The bill failed to pass despite massive amounts of money and effort being poured into Tennessee to advance vouchers, by groups such as Students First and the American Federation for Children (of which Secretary DeVos is the former chairwoman.)  Rep. Dunn has again filed his voucher proposal (HB336/SB380), which would have statewide application, and offer private school vouchers for students eligible for free and reduced lunch and zoned to a school scoring in the bottom 5% of the state on state-mandated assessments.

            One of the ironies of voucher legislation is that many lawmakers who support the concept prefer to be assured that this supposed opportunity for students will not impact their communities and the students and schools in them. Hence, Sen. Kelsey (R-Germantown), one of the most vocal voucher advocates in the legislature, has introduced a new voucher concept that would purportedly be limited only to Shelby County Schools. (Germantown, although located in Shelby County, has formed its own municipal school district.) SB161/HB126 would apply only to school systems with at least thirty schools scoring in the bottom 5% of the state on state-mandated assessments. This would eliminate smaller districts who have less than thirty schools in total. At present, Shelby County Schools is the only district that would be impacted. However, given the history of our legislators to continually expand voucher and charter school legislation once enacted, it should be assumed that this “pilot program” would be expanded in the future to other urban districts such as Metro Nashville Public Schools.

            As an example of the fact that any voucher program adopted is likely to be expanded, bills have already filed to expand eligibility for the voucher system adopted last year, which gives private school vouchers to students with special needs whose parents agree to waive their child’s rights to special education services. The initial proposal that passed last year gained approval by limiting application to specific, designated disabilities and conditions. This year, SB573/HB715 and SB115/HB364 seek to drop some of these limitations and greatly expand the impact of this voucher system. It’s rather startling how quickly this attempt to expand the reach of what was proposed as a closely monitored pilot program has come, long before any information is available to assess the initial law’s impact and track record.

            No matter what initial limitations are placed on a voucher scheme, no matter how much it is couched in flowery language about opportunity and scholarship, the bottom line remains the same. Vouchers have been proven time and time again to be a failure at raising student achievement, and to reduce the resources available to our public schools that serve the most vulnerable children. Vouchers shift scarce public money away from school systems that are required and committed to serve every child to private schools that retain the right to pick and choose which students they prefer to educate. They represent an abandonment of public education and of the ideal that school should be open to all children. Proponents of vouchers in Tennessee have stated that their ultimate goal is no limitations on voucher eligibility, so that even high-income families can take money from the public school budget to send their children to private school. The League of Women Voters has long opposed voucher schemes. Now is the time to contact your legislator and let him or her know you are counting on the legislature to commit to the ideals of public education and reject all of these proposals.


Posted in Tennessee, Vouchers.


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