Below is an interview with Justin Owen, President and CEO of Beacon Center of Tennessee. The Beacon Center is helping push voucher legislation in Tennessee.
Some of our readers may not know much about the Beacon Center of Tennessee. Can you tell us about your organization?
Most people refer to the Beacon Center as a “free market think tank,” but what that really means is that we come up with ideas to empower Tennessee to reclaim control of their lives, and we put those ideas into action so that those Tennesseans can freely pursue their version of the American Dream.
During the past legislative session, your organization helped push a measure to create a voucher program in Tennessee. Are you bringing about the same legislation this year? Can you tell us about it?
Beacon supported legislation last year that would provide a voucher, or opportunity scholarship, to low-income children zoned for districts containing failing schools. We believe that parents, not ZIP codes, should decide what school their child attends. We owe it to Tennessee families to ensure that each child in our state gets the best education, tailored to his or her unique needs, and we will support similar legislation to do just that in 2015.
Many of our readers are public school teachers. Why should teachers be in favor of sending money away from public schools to private schools?
Teachers consistently point to the need for higher per-pupil funding and smaller class sizes. Opportunity scholarships will give them both. As a recent Beacon study [http://www.beacontn.org/wp-content/uploads/fiscal-impacts_web.pdf] shows, only a portion of the amount we already spend would follow a child via a scholarship. The rest would remain with that public school to be reinvested in those children. Some districts – like Memphis and Nashville – would not only cover the fixed costs, but save an additional $1,300 to $1,500 for every child that leaves. And while there will be no mass exodus of children from the system (as most families will continue to choose the public school option for their children), those who do leave with a scholarship will reduce classroom sizes, allowing teacher to increase their focus on those who choose to stay in the school.
Is using a voucher system been proven effective?
Yes, studies show that both children who use vouchers and those who choose to remain in their public school benefit. Nine of 10 random assignment studies show gains among opportunity scholarship students. And of 23 studies conducted on vouchers’ impact of public school students, 22 found positive gains in their performance as well. Not one single study has ever found a negative impact on voucher students or those who remain in public schools. Thus, these programs represent a rising tide that lifts all boats.
Besides vouchers, what other education initiations does the Beacon Center promote?
Beacon sees opportunity scholarships as another tool in the education toolbox, and part of a broader movement to empower parents with more choice in education. Our focus is on advancing the various options parents have at their fingertips.
For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport