TEA Talks Vouchers, Charters

The Tennessee Education Association is raising concerns about Gov. Bill Lee’s school privatization agenda. More from a recent article posted on the TEA website:

In his State of the State address, Gov. Bill Lee announced his intent to allocate more than one-fifth of his K-12 education budget to advance privatization in Tennessee. His proposed budget includes more than $25 million for education savings accounts and $12 million for a charter school building slush fund.

“TEA has serious concerns about the governor’s plan to fund a program that is essentially private school vouchers with even less accountability that are more susceptible to fraud and abuse,” said TEA President Beth Brown. “At a time when classrooms lack needed resources and teachers are digging into their own pockets to buy classroom supplies, it is discouraging to see funding going to something proven to harm student achievement in other states.”

The increase in the building fund for private charter operators is partnered with a proposal to make it easier for new charter schools to be approved. While details on this are still not final, TEA strongly opposes any charter legislation that limits the authority of the locally elected school board to be the final voice on new charter school applications.

“Charter schools need to be a local decision, because local taxpayers bear a majority of the costs,” Brown said. “Also, local boards of education better understand the needs of their district and are better equipped to make the right decision for the students they serve.”

Both charter schools and any form of private school vouchers have proven to destabilize public school budgets and negatively impact existing classrooms. These privatization schemes also have a track record of harming student achievement.

“We have seen in other states where students in voucher programs and unaccountable charter schools are not keeping up with their peers in traditional public schools,” Brown said. “There are many proven ways to improve public education for all schools; unfortunately, the governor is choosing to invest significant resources in two dangerous paths.”

The more than $35 million currently slated for education savings accounts and rapid charter expansion would be better used in ways proven to increase student performance, like reducing class sizes and updating text books and classroom technology. 

“As a rural educator, I understand the assumption that these risks will only impact metro areas, but that is simply untrue,” said Brown. “Educators and public education advocates from every corner of the state need to stand together to defeat every single attempt to privatize education. If passed, these proposals would erode the foundation of all public schools.”

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Disaster

That’s how Nashville school board member Will Pinkston describes Gov. Bill Lee’s proposals to expand charter schools and enact a voucher program. Pinkston’s comments come via The Washington Post and the education column of Valerie Strauss.

Here’s some of what Pinkston has to say:

In Tennessee, our state constitution guarantees “a system of free public schools” — not a system of taxpayer-funded private schools, which is what you’d be creating with vouchers. Setting aside the unconstitutional nature of vouchers, it’s just bad policy at a time when the state is already underfunding our public schools. If your plan is enacted, it will likely end up in court.

Gov. Lee: Tennessee is ranked in the bottom seven states in America when it comes to per-pupil funding. Let’s instead have a conversation focused on large-scale priorities like dramatically improving teacher pay, expanding early childhood education, and committing to adequate funding for all public schools — not privatizing our school systems vis-à-vis charters and vouchers.

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Camper vs. Vouchers

House Democratic Leader Karen Camper of Memphis is taking on Governor Bill Lee’s proposed voucher program, which he is calling an “education savings account.”

The Daily Memphian has more:


Camper castigated the governor’s education savings account plan, saying voucher programs in other states resulted in poorer performance by students.
“We must continue to fight against this attack on our public school system,” Camper said in response to Lee’s speech, adding she is “saddened” by governor’s effort to take money from public school programs.

More on Lee’s plan:


Simultaneously, he is asking the Legislature for $25.4 million for education savings accounts and $12 million for a charter schools investment program, doubling the amount of money for charters and setting new rules for access to public facilities while establishing an independent authority to approve charter schools. Formerly known as vouchers, ESAs would provide public money, $7,300 to eligible students, to attend private schools or other alternatives, possibly home schools.

That Lee is advancing an agenda to dismantle public schools should come as no surprise as he has consistently shown his support for voucher programs.

The question for this legislative session is: Will rural legislators join with urban representatives to stop vouchers, or will Bill Lee prevail and begin the privatization of Tennessee’s public schools?

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Pernicious

That’s how Frank Cagle describes the theory of vouchers in his latest column. Here’s some of what he has to say:


But despite some practical problems, it is the pernicious theory of vouchers themselves that is the problem, no matter what you call it. We, as a society, have decided that an educated populace is necessary for the public good. So we pay taxes and fund public schools. Everybody pays taxes. Everybody has an interest in how successful public schools can be. Parents can take some of our tax revenue only if parents pay all the school taxes. Parents have no more right to take money out of the public treasury than anyone else.


If a teacher has 25 students in a public school and two of the students get vouchers to go elsewhere, how does the money work? You still have to fund the classroom. The teacher’s salary. The school staff. You can’t just remove two seats on the school bus. The costs are fixed. The idea that you can take money and issue vouchers without hurting the public schools is just wrong.

Cagle’s argument is nicely summed up in this image from Iowa:

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1000%

That’s how much Williamson County state Senator Jack Johnson supports vouchers. Except he was clear in a recent legislative forum that he didn’t want vouchers to impact Williamson County.

Tennessee Holler has more on Johnson’s bad math and rank hypocrisy:

Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson (R-Franklin) on the other hand said he supported vouchers “1000%” – although in the next breath he made it clear they would in no way affect Williamson County, which is where he lives, and which is where the town hall was being held.

Yes, it’s hypocritical to say vouchers are ok for other districts, but not right for yours. But it also denies reality. That is, vouchers simply don’t work to help kids and also that they carry significant costs. The funds depleted from the state budget to support vouchers will be funds not available to support an already underfunded public education system:

Nearly 15,000 students who never attended public school suddenly receiving vouchers would mean a state cost of $98 million. That’s $98 million in new money. Of course, those funds would either be new money (which is not currently contemplated) or would take from the state’s BEP allocations in the districts where the students receive the vouchers.

Let’s look at Davidson County as an example. If three percent of the student population there took vouchers, and half of those were students who had never attended a public school, the loss to the district would be a minimum of $8.4 million.

Applying that same math to Williamson County, a voucher program would mean a net loss to Williamson County Schools of around $3.4 million. That is, unless Johnson plans on dedicating new revenue to the BEP to make up for the cost of the voucher plan he backs “1000%.”

There’s no reason to believe he will do that, however. Especially since Tennessee is spending less per student in inflation-adjusted dollars than we were back in 2010 when Bill Haslam became governor. Johnson fully supported Haslam’s bleak education budgets that left our state investment in public schools stagnant. Now, he wants to direct public money to private schools and also wants to pretend that won’t impact the community he represents.

He’s either willfully ignorant or hopes the citizens of Williamson County aren’t paying attention.

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Voucher Resistance Grows


School Boards in Murfreesboro and Rutherford County both recently indicated opposition to using public money to fund private schools, the Daily News Journal reports.

Lawmakers should oppose state money being used for private education, says a resolution approved Thursday by Rutherford County school officials.

The seven Board of Education members also signed the document in opposition to any state legislation allowing vouchers or education savings accounts for private education. The elected school officials represent a district serving 46,772 students from prekindergarten through 12th grade.

Murfreesboro City School Board members also will be signing the resolution to oppose vouchers and education savings accounts for private schools, Chairman Butch Campbell said Friday.

“I think it’s a continued effort to let our legislators know the opposition that we have for school vouchers,” Campbell said.

The seven-member City School board serves a prekindergarten- through sixth-grade district with 8,989 students.

Despite opposition from the city and county school districts she represents, state Senator Dawn White says she remains a supporter of using public money for private schools:

State Sen. Dawn White, R-Murfreesboro, however, said she backs any potential legislation similar to a law passed a few years ago permitting education savings accounts for special education students.

White’s support for vouchers not only runs counter to the school systems she represents, it also ignores significant evidence that vouchers simply don’t work:

Voucher studies of statewide programs in Ohio, Louisiana, and Indiana all suggest that not only do vouchers not improve student achievement, they in fact cause student performance to decline.

Stay tuned to see if a voucher plan — in whatever disguise — moves forward this legislative session.

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Voucher Fraud


While there is clear evidence suggesting vouchers don’t improve academic outcomes for students, a new concern is getting the attention of Tennessee lawmakers: Fraud.

The Daily Memphian has more:

Reports from across the nation show situations in which private-school officials and parents spent voucher money for items unrelated to education. Cards were used at beauty supply stores, sporting good shops and for computer tech support, in addition to trying to withdraw cash, which was not allowed.

The Arizona Republic found many parents there put voucher funds into college-savings accounts then sent their children to public schools, among other fraudulent activity, all amid lax oversight. The Phoenix newspaper also reported the state investigated one case in which voucher funds were allegedly used to pay for an abortion after it adopted an Empowerment Scholarship Account program in 2011.

The Wisconsin State Journal reported in 2014 the state paid $139 million over 10 years to schools it wound up removing from its voucher program for not following Wisconsin’s financial reporting rules and other guidelines.

It’s not clear if voucher legislation will move forward this session, though Governor Bill Lee has consistently supported using public money to fund private schools.

 

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A Voucher By Any Other Name


Is still bad for Tennessee students and a raw deal for Tennessee taxpayers.

The Tennessee Education Association has some analysis:

It is clear that privatizers are favoring Education Savings Accounts as a new means to try to change the conversation after five years of stinging defeats when peddling more traditional voucher legislation.  While ESAs are referred to by some as “vouchers light,” nothing could be further from the truth.

ESAs are vouchers on steroids, as recipients are sent money directly rather than applying it toward the cost of private school tuition.  As such, parents can then spend the funds however they like, even if that means keeping their children home and not attending school at all.

This super voucher has been used in other states with disastrous results.  Sending funds directly to parents has invited widespread fraud and abuse of voucher funds.

“The fact is, we have truant officers for a reason,” says TEA chief lobbyist Jim Wrye.  “The state will be providing a monetary incentive for the misuse of funds and children will suffer as a result.”

Stay tuned as the legislative session develops and vouchers in some form emerge at the General Assembly.

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Houston County Commission Takes Stand for Public Schools


The Houston County Commission joined the growing list of opponents to a school voucher program recently.

The Clarksville Leaf-Chronicle has more:

The Houston County Commission has approved a resolution opposing any state measure that would take funds from public schools for use at private schools.

Twelve out of 13 commissioners, with one abstaining, voted on Jan. 28 for a resolution affirming support for public education and educators to be sent to Gov. Bill Lee, members of the Tennessee Legislature and the Commissioner of Education.

Legislation was filed by Rep. Jay Reedy, R-Erin, in early January to create a voucher program. Since then, a number of school boards have passed similar resolutions in opposition to such a program.

Local school boards and county commissions are expressing their position on vouchers as Governor Bill Lee has indicated he intends to pursue voucher legislation.

The bottom line: Vouchers don’t work.

Voucher studies of statewide programs in Ohio, Louisiana, and Indiana all suggest that not only do vouchers not improve student achievement, they in fact cause student performance to decline.

Some state policymakers (State Rep. Bill Dunn, State Senator Brian Kelsey, Governor Bill Haslam) are asking taxpayers to invest in a voucher scheme. These advocates suggest that a voucher program can provide a path to better outcomes for students. However, the results of statewide programs in three different studies indicate just the opposite: Vouchers offer a path to dismal achievement.

Tennessee lawmakers should take a look at the evidence. Vouchers just don’t work. In fact, they harm the very students voucher advocates claim to want to help.

Stay tuned to see if voucher legislation advances and how legislators respond to the local elected officials strongly opposing the use of public money to fund private schools.

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Vouchers Will Hurt Tennessee Students


Rev. David Kidd of Nashville, writing on behalf of Pastors for Tennessee Children, outlines the harms of school vouchers.

Kidd notes:

Although urban legislators have been divided on the question of private school vouchers, rural legislators have voted them down, realizing that vouchers offer no benefit to rural districts, but instead endanger their already fragile budgets.

Indiana’s voucher program, for example, has drawn rural students into religious schools to the detriment of small, vulnerable districts.  Only 15 children in Richland-Bean Blossom attendance district used vouchers in the 2013-2014 school year, soon after Indiana passed voucher legislation in 2011.

By 2016-2017 that number had increased to 41. Result? $200,000 less in revenue for Richland-Bean Blossom, sparking talk of closing schools.

He also outlines the academic harm caused by vouchers:

To make matters worse, vouchers often fail to improve outcomes for the students. Rigorous studies in three different states, Louisiana, Indiana and Ohio, (as well as the District of Columbia, the only federally funded voucher program), have shown that students who use vouchers to attend private schools fare worse academically than their closely matched peers attending public schools.

Kidd points out what the evidence shows: Vouchers are problematic for rural communities financially and end up leaving the kids they purport to help behind.

Our legislature should heed his warning.

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