Samantha Bates, Director of Member Services for Professional Educators of Tennessee (PET) offers her take on why vouchers won’t work in Tennessee.
We are living in an age of historic transformation. There is a no doubt that traditional conservative and liberal ideology has undergone a seismic shift. Political labels mean nothing to voters, because it is very obvious that they mean nothing to politicians elected under a political banner of a party. In education the name of the game is race to the top; in politics it is race to the trough.
Calvin Coolidge understood that the power to tax is the power to destroy. He said, “A government which lays taxes on the people not required by urgent public necessity and sound public policy is not a protector of liberty, but an instrument of tyranny.” Government at all levels has created problems and then miraculously been seen as the savior to resolve that issue. We understand, however, that top-down reform rarely reaches the grassroots.
Unless we generate improved capacities in our people, organizations, and communities to see the world differently and to utilize new concepts and methods, we will continue to try to advance ideas and approaches that are increasingly out of date. For example, we have made our system of public education adhere to one set of rules and then handcuffed them. Now we want to allow other approaches to operate under different constructs. Should we not focus on means to free our state and local school districts from onerous rules and regulations and give them greater freedom to operate? Instead of charter schools, for example, what about charter districts in Tennessee. Let’s simply block-grant federal and money to the states or districts.
Education is the process by which we infuse knowledge of our culture and our moral values in our children. However, our schools are being changed from essential community institutions into government agencies. Rather than serving as hubs of civic life, our schools are converting into apparatuses of state and national policy more concerned with economic development than with the diffusion of culture; more concerned with issues associated with international competitiveness than with concern about national character. We have lost our vision because we handcuffed public schools with burdensome rules and regulations and outsourced our policymaking to chambers of commerce and wealthy philanthropists and their well-funded think tanks.
Just as good teachers know when to put aside curriculum to do what is right for children, good leaders will support that effort and good policy will embrace it. The move to shift more state and local dollars to vouchers in Tennessee will not work and will further destroy our public schools. Under a recent proposal the attempt is to target the lowest performing five percent. There will always be a bottom five percent. So, if your school is not on the list, rest assured it will eventually get there. The numbers will expand, and local school systems will be required to absorb the cost to educate the students that remain.
If policymakers want to argue that the latest voucher proposal will promote market-driven competition, they are operating under a false assumption. They will need to come to grips with the fact that, as a whole, Tennessee lacks the necessary infrastructure of quality private schools, and that list is further narrowed with ones that operate at a reasonable tuition rate in line with any proposed voucher. There are some Jewish, Christian, and Muslim schools that may meet the criteria. While the U.S. Constitution is silent on how states fund or provide a quality education, and courts around the nation have upheld that providing money to faith-based schools through vouchers does not violate the Establishment Clause of the Constitution, each community will ultimately debate if this is where they want their tax money to be spent.
It would also stand to reason, if we are concerned about accountability in public schools and with public monies we will need to also need to be concerned with accountability of a voucher school. If the testing and evaluation system are critical for quality in public schools, would they not be as equally critical for private schools? Vouchers could lead private schools to excessive regulation, as well as undermine the quality and independence of private schools. Whoever pays the piper ultimately calls the tune.
A voucher program will also inevitably lead to continued growth and power by the Tennessee Department of Education over local education. Vouchers will not eliminate or substantially reduce the state’s role in education, and it will take significant resources to oversee the program. If you like big government, this will increase the size and scope of the Tennessee Department of Education.
For some, vouchers are a means to eliminate public education. Looking at the argument for a moment, do we really want a massive system of government contractors, albeit private schools, approved by the state, who in turn will themselves lobby and demand larger subsidies? Vouchers will also likely drive up the cost for parents in private schools whose children do not use or qualify for vouchers.
Philosopher George Santayana defined fanaticism as amplifying your efforts when you have forgotten your purpose. While public schools must promote personal development and intellectual growth, education goes beyond preparing students for college or the workforce. We must remind ourselves of the purpose of public education under the Tennessee Constitution: “The state of Tennessee recognizes the inherent value of education and encourages its support. The General Assembly shall provide for the maintenance, support and eligibility standards of a system of free public schools.” Will vouchers, as proposed, meet that standard?
There are many people working hard to strengthen our system of free public schools. We simply believe that local educators, rather than outside influences, are the people who must transform our schools. We have been there. We are teachers, principals, superintendents and boards of education and we do not believe vouchers will work in our state.
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