It’s too early to coin a word for the year on Capitol Hill, but it could arguably be vouchers.
Parents, politicians, business interests and everyone in-between should get used to that word, because the term will be on repeat over at least the next few months, if not years.
Vouchers are essentially taxpayer-funded coupons parents can use to send their children to the private or parochial school of their choice for free or on a discount. Tennessee doesn’t offer them yet, but there is momentum on Capitol Hill to change that.
Following a dozen states and the District of Columbia, vocal members of the Republican-led legislature are demanding that the state offer parents these vouchers to take their children out of their local public school and send them elsewhere.
The political arguments around the issue are polarizing.
One extreme insists vouchers — which advocates prefer to call “opportunity scholarships” — would increase competition in the unmotivated public school system by creating a free market where students can figuratively pack their backpack with thousands of dollars worth of taxes.
Parents have already paid into the system and they should spend that money to attend the school of their choice. They also insist vouchers would provide a high-quality education to children whose parents cannot afford to move into a better school zone.
The other side argues vouchers are a recipe for disaster. Parents most likely to jump through the hoops to use a voucher system are the ones who are already most involved in their children’s education, a population of invested moms and dads already in short supply. More involved parents typically have students who are better in school, so vouchers would take both active parents and their promising children out of the public school system, largely segregating the bottom of the barrel students who face the steepest academic challenges. There is also fear that private schools will take that separation to the next step by cherry picking the best students with vouchers. Meanwhile, opponents are adamant vouchers would ultimately hurt the public education system by siphoning money out of already cash-strapped school districts — which still have building and overhead costs — and put those dollars in the hands of private and religious schools in an effort to privatize education.
Select Republicans in the Tennessee legislature have tripped over themselves for years trying to install an aggressive voucher program. After much hesitance, Gov. Bill Haslam is dictating the terms of such a system by offering what sounds like his own moderate program to the General Assembly this month, although he hasn’t announced what the details will look like. In fact, no one knows what a voucher framework could include because the moving parts in such a system are seemingly endless.
The plan up for negotiation on Capitol Hill is to give vouchers only to poor students from low-performing schools as early as the 2013-14 academic year.
Although the governor has not detailed how poor students’ families must be to qualify, nearly 59 percent of students in Tennessee were eligible for free or reduced-price lunches last school year, a telltale snapshot of the number of low-income students. A typical qualifying family of four would bring in less than $42,643 per year.
In Davidson County, 72 percent of students meet that free or reduced-price lunch threshold, which includes 56,268 students, at least some of which would be eligible for the governor’s voucher program.
If Haslam sticks to focusing his voucher plan on weak schools, several in Davidson County are likely in the mix. The bulk of the state’s worst performers are in Memphis, but are also largely in other urban areas like Nashville. The bottom 5 percent of schools alone include 69 in Memphis, six schools in Nashville, six in the Chattanooga area, one in Knoxville, and another in Whiteville outside Shelby County.
The 10 percent of schools showing the largest disparities between groups — based on factors such as ethnicity, family income, disability and native language — are more scattered across the state. Davidson County includes 13 of the state’s bottom 167 schools.
Whether the governor will want to link vouchers purely to a percentage of the state’s worst schools or factor in those where performance gaps are widest is unknown. Also unknown is how bad a school would have to be for its low-income students there to be eligible for a voucher.
Which schools parents can send their kids to under a voucher program is also up in the air. Davidson County is home to 64 private schools, second only to Memphis’ 91. Some private schools with high tuition rates have indicated they may skip on vouchers — valued at an estimated $8,000 here — in lieu of full tuition in the double digits. A recent survey from the Beacon Center, a libertarian think-tank fond of vouchers, found almost two-thirds of private schools would participate in such a program, although the survey had less than a 40 percent participation rate.
Advocates for vouchers generally agree that there needs to be a mechanism to keep the private schools accountable for producing results with taxpayer money. More than half of schools surveyed said they don’t want to administer the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program, known as the TCAP, although using other tests such as the ACT could be up for negotiation.
These and other issues are all up for debate in the legislature this year. Lawmakers will also have to figure out issues like how the funding structure would work, whether private schools would need accreditation, whether transportation will be provided to vouchered students and how many vouchers would be available.
This is all provided the measure passes. Advocacy groups on both sides of the issue are lining up for the vouchers fight. School boards, superintendents and teachers unions are all opposed to the idea, along with grassroots groups organizing to speak out against the plan.
They’re going up against a Republican-led legislature that benefited heavily from political support from fans of school choice, such as $470,000 in the last two years from StudentsFirst, a group led by controversial education reformer Michelle Rhee, who wants a hand in the details of a Tennessee voucher program.
As much momentum as there appears for vouchers, it might not be a slam dunk. House Speaker Beth Harwell says she’s a big fan of public education and isn’t convinced that vouchers have a place here.
“I think what folks need to realize is this General Assembly and this governor are fully committed to the students. Not systems, not anything else. They’re committed to students and students performing well, and we’re committed to do whatever it takes to make sure that happens,” Harwell told The City Paper.
Are vouchers how Tennessee should accomplish that? “Well, I’m not sure of that,” she said. “I’m going to let my committee look at it and see what they conclude.”