By BRAD FISCUS
During Tennessee’s State of the State address on March 4, Gov. Bill Lee made it clear that privatizing public education would be a significant initiative of his legislative agenda. While he professed his support for public schools, he also laid out his plan to strip away funding from public schools.
The governor’s plan proposes vouchers that would eliminate public accountability by channeling tax dollars into private schools or home school programs that do not face state-approved academic standards. Private schools do not publicly report on student achievement and do not meet the public accountability requirements outlined in major federal laws — including laws which protect students with special needs.
Vouchers are an easy, yet ineffective, “out” for our legislators — relieving our state leaders of their responsibility to provide oversight and accountability for public schools as demanded by our state constitution.
Gov. Lee has promised to restrict his education savings accounts (ESA) to use by students from low-income families from the lowest performing schools. These education savings accounts — or education scholarship accounts, individual education savings accounts or education scholarship tax credits — are euphemisms for vouchers.
In Indiana in 2011, while Vice President Mike Pence was governor, vouchers were approved. Similar to Gov. Lee’s proposal, Indiana’s program initially limited ESA’s to 7,500 students from low-income families in low-performing districts. As of 2018, over 35,000 students now utilize taxpayer money intended for public education to pay private school fees.
Indiana has spent a combined $685 million on this publicly funded private-school experiment. However, a significant number of participating students were already attending private schools or participating in homeschool programs. What’s more, studies reveal these students are not improving academically. Voucher programs don’t work. Imagine the benefit if Indiana had invested an additional $685 million in its public schools, instead of subsidizing private schools.
Contrary to what proponents purport, voucher programs do not support parent and student choice. Instead of voucher programs providing options for parents and students, private schools have the chance to choose which students will be accepted, while public education districts are expected to provide a local system of free public education for all children.
Gov. Lee’s misguided plan will undermine the very schools the state of Tennessee should be supporting. Until we address the socio-economic conditions that are predominant in neighborhoods where underperforming schools operate, we will not solve the issue of suboptimal school performance. We must invest in systems of support and training, such as mentorship and literacy programs, that have been proven effective with underserved children and youth, instead of taking financial resources away.
In Williamson County, a district with some of the highest performing schools in the state despite some of the lowest per-student funding, we’re being told by Sen. Jack Johnson and House Speaker Glen Casada that “vouchers won’t affect us because we have strong schools.” We have been told we “shouldn’t be worried.” Why would the state’s top-ranked county want to ensure they are not affected if vouchers are good for public education?
If Indiana’s experience with vouchers is any indication, we can be sure this plan will affect Williamson County schools. Even if it doesn’t, shouldn’t we care enough about public education in other parts of Tennessee to prevent this program from happening there?
Tell your legislators and our governor that vouchers are not welcome in our state.
Brad Fiscus is a veteran teacher, a leader in the Tennessee Conference of The United Methodist Church, and a member of the Williamson County Board of Education. The following op-ed is his personal views and does not represent the thoughts or opinions of Williamson County Schools or the Board of Education or the Tennessee Conference of The United Methodist Church.