By AMBER STEWART
A bill to provide vouchers to students in the bottom 5 percent of schools statewide emerged from a House subcommittee with a recommendation for approval.
A bill providing vouchers to students in the bottom 5 percent of schools statewide emerged from a house subcommittee today with a recommendation for approval.
HB1049, or the “Tennessee Choice & Opportunity Scholarship Act,” is the House version of a Senate bill passed last year that would provide private school vouchers to students in failing schools who also qualify for free or reduced lunch programs.
The program would take the amount of money usually allotted per public school student out of the Basic Education Program and transfer it to a private school. Private schools would then have to agree to accept students from these low-performing schools at the potentially reduced rate. The bill is being hailed as a “school choice” bill that will provide parents with more education options for their children.
“The advancement of today’s school choice legislation is a victory for families in search of a quality education and Tennessee taxpayers alike,” said State Rep. Glen Casada.
“Our Republican majority remains committed to empowering parents to make the best decisions for their own children and to improving our state’s education system though competition and parental choice. We owe the children of our state the right to attend a successful school.”
However, many education groups in Tennessee, and in Williamson County, do not see the bill as a victory, but rather as an impediment to public education, even though Williamson County has no schools ranked in the bottom five percent.
“Vouchers, ultimately, wherever they take place, siphon money from public schools,” said Williamson County Education Association president Larry Dickens. “The ultimate goal,” he continued, “is to broaden vouchers to any school, any kid, any time, anywhere.”
Rep. Jeremy Durham believes that the bill will not interfere in the Williamson County School system, but “I think it’s important that children in failing districts in other parts of the state are granted a similar opportunity to what we have in Williamson County. But at the same time, we have a great thing going in Williamson County, and I wouldn’t want to alter that,” he said.
Dickens added that Williamson County has heard similar arguments before when the legislature was debating charter schools. “There were those when the first charter bill came out that said that Williamson County had nothing to worry about, that said that we would never see a charter school here. And then within the first year there was an application for a charter school.” That application was later denied.
Rep. Charles Sargent chairs Finance, Ways and Means, which discussed and approved the bill on Wednesday. He supports the bill, characterizing it as one of many things that he is willing to try to help students in failing schools.
“I have a problem letting this number of children, no matter who they are or where they are, just saying we’re going to let them fail.” He said. “If we get them educated and get them in the workforce, it will help the entire state of Tennessee.”
Though Williamson County has no failing schools, Williamson Strong, a parent organization in support of public schools in Williamson County has also been critical of the bill.
“Vouchers have not been shown to improve educational outcomes for children,” said member Kim Henke in a publicly posted email to Sargent, “What proof do you have that the private schools that will accept vouchers are ‘better’ than public schools? None of the prestigious private schools will accept vouchers … If demand exceeds supply, will the state effectively fund the growth of Catholic schools? What will prevent pop-up schools in strip malls? How can that be a better option for Tennessee kids?”
JC Bowman, Executive Director of Professional Educators of Tennessee, agrees that supply and demand answers have not been adequately answered. “There is lack of capacity by private schools to take students, particularly low-income and students from low-performing districts. ½Private schools may have to adjust their admission procedures, and should be held to the same standards as public schools. How many seats are available in private schools at the proposed voucher amount? Nobody has answered that question.”
He also questioned the fiscal responsibility of passing such a law. “Both public and private schools will then be seeking additional funding by the legislature,” he said. “It will only increase pressure on lawmakers, not lessen it.” He also pointed out that, with many districts strapped for cash, vouchers could harm their ability to repay debt, leading to a statewide impact.
“We need a rational debate on education policy, and cannot be afraid to put everything on the table. But vouchers cannot work in Tennessee, because of lack of infrastructure by private schools and the low fiscal margin most school districts operate with statewide. If this passes, I would expect to see property tax increases almost immediately.”