What are vouchers?
As we have stated repeatedly, we believe that the way to build and strengthen a world-class public school system is to make sure that public schools are adequately resourced. We believe that public tax dollars should be invested in public schools and not be diverted for vouchers to go into private schools. We think investment in our public schools is the best policy choice for our kids, our communities, and our schools.
But do vouchers work?
No, vouchers just don’t work. “A wave of new research has emerged suggesting that private school vouchers may harm students who receive them. The results are startling — the worst in the history of the field, researchers say.”
Research found in three separate studies of the three different voucher programs in Indiana, Louisiana and Ohio that voucher students fared worse than their public school peers.
What’s going on in Tennessee?
This year, Tennessee legislators have put all their voucher eggs in the Memphis pilot basket even though 13 of 17 Memphis legislators and the Shelby County Commission oppose vouchers. Williamson County Rep. Glen Casada and Sen. Jack Johnson are co-sponsors of the current bill. It is unclear why Williamson County legislators get to override the preferences of those elected by the people of Memphis
Rep. Larry Miller, a voucher opponent from Memphis, said during last year’s Finance Committee hearing on vouchers:
“Everyone’s always saying they know what’s best for the children of Shelby County Schools. Do they?”
Williamson County Rep. Glen Casada, perennial voucher supporter and recipient of more than $15K from pro-privatization groups, said about Memphis schools at a legislative roundtable in Franklin in February:
“I support vouchers for drug-infested, vile-infested schools. Those schools that cannot protect a child and provide a proper education. We need to provide a way for those children to get out of that dangerous school.”
What are these “drug-infested, vile-infested schools”? Doesn’t the state, including Rep. Casada, have an obligation to ensure that no public schools fit that description?
So this legislation is only for Memphis schools?
In 2011 Arizona passed a special ed voucher law similar to Tennessee’s. This month, Arizona passed a bill “to remove limits on the state’s school voucher program and allow every public school student to use state cash to attend a private school.” Indiana’s voucher program grew from 7,500 students to more than 30,000 in just five years and now costs the state $131 million.
The pilot is a strategic foot in the door. The privatization groups are even starting to admit it.
The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a conservative model legislation “bill mill” comprised of state legislators like Brian Kelsey, Sheila Butt and Dolores Gresham and corporations like Koch Industries, announced in July 2015 that it was changing its PR focus on vouchers “from underserved inner-city schools to middle-class suburbia.” According to the League of Women Voters, “proponents of vouchers in Tennessee have stated that their ultimate goal is no limitations on voucher eligibility, so that even high-income families can take money from the public school budget to send their children to private school.”
These voucher advocates want to take public money out of public schools. They want to pour it into private and religious schools at the expense of public schools.
How could a voucher program impact Williamson County?
At a September 29, 2014, meeting of the Tennessee County Commissioners Association, the organization’s executive director said that school vouchers would be “the greatest nightmare counties have ever faced.”
David Connor, executive director of Tennessee County Services Association, explained:
“Existing public schools have fixed overhead costs, such as debt from building programs or maintenance costs for school facilities. If you suddenly make it possible for 10 percent of a school’s population to leave, and take their tax dollars with them, that could have a devastating impact on the school system’s financial status and viability. One would think that variable costs, such as the number of teachers, could be cut to match a smaller student population, but that isn’t always as easy or efficient as it seems.”
Fast-growing counties like ours would “have to borrow even more for each new building project to fund the share of that expenditure which would have to be given out in the form of vouchers.”
This year the Tennessee County Commissioners Association estimated the county property tax that would be needed to offset a 10% decrease in student population due to a voucher program. Williamson County would need $0.2682 or a 12.5% property tax increase to replace the revenue lost to private voucher schools. With the current struggle to decide how to pay for the explosive growth in Williamson County Schools, would residents have an appetite to raise taxes to fund a parallel private voucher school system?
The bill stalled in the House Government Operations Committee for three weeks. In one session, the committee voted narrowly to strip the requirement that voucher students take the same state-mandated tests (TNReady) as their public school peers. Without comparable tests, there is no apples-to-apples comparison to determine the success or failure of a Memphis pilot program.
Last week, the House Government Operations Committee approved the bill on a voice vote with a neutral recommendation. Rep. Sam Whitson of Williamson County was one of four legislators who requested to be recorded as voting No.
After a long and contentious 4/19 debate on the IMPROVE Act, the Finance, Ways and Means Subcommittee rolled HB0126 to Wednesday, April 26 at 10 a.m.
What can I do?
Williamson County residents, please contact Finance Committee Chair Rep. Charles Sargent! 615-741-6808, [email protected]
Email the Finance, Ways & Means Subcommittee! Ask them to vote no on the voucher bill (HB126) and to fully fund public education in Tennessee.
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We’ve written a number of pieces about vouchers over the years. You can read them here.