A political fight brews as Tennessee considers controversial education reform

Sunday, November 6, 2011 at 8:05pm

The teachers’ union and the state’s school boards were at each other’s throats in the last state legislative session over the new law ending collective bargaining for employment contracts. But in the upcoming session, the two pillars of public education have joined forces against what they see as a common enemy.

Along with the Tennessee Education Association, the state’s Coalition of Large School Systems — Nashville, Knoxville, Memphis and Chattanooga — is gearing up to fight the next item on the GOP education reform agenda: school vouchers.

The Big Four were taken by surprise in the last session when Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, whipped his school voucher bill successfully through the Senate. The bill died in the House. But Kelsey has already vowed to try again the next session, which begins in January, and Gov. Bill Haslam says he’s thinking about helping him.

Kelsey would give what he calls “Equal Opportunity Scholarships” to low-income kids — those receiving free-and-reduced-price meals — in Nashville, Memphis, Knoxville and Chattanooga. In Nashville, that’s three-quarters of the children.

The scholarships would amount to half the money that state and local school systems spend on each child. That’s $4,050 in Nashville. And parents could use the money to send their child to any school — public or private, religious or otherwise.

“Equal Opportunity Scholarships provide impoverished children with hope for a better education and choice in the school they attend,” says Kelsey, of Germantown, a wealthy Memphis suburb. “Children should not be forced to attend a failing school just because they live in a certain neighborhood. Equal Opportunity Scholarships will allow all children to receive the quality education they deserve.”

The school boards in the Big Four systems all have adopted resolutions against vouchers, and their coalition has hired Robert Gowan and the Southern Strategy Group to do their lobbying.

In an interview, Metro school board vice chairman Mark North, Nashville’s representative in the big city coalition, denounced Kelsey’s bill as “basically the Private School Relief Act.”

“It takes public money and diverts it to private schools,” he said. “We just went through all these reforms. We’d take the money from the schools that we’ve just taken all those steps to ensure quality teaching and accountability and give it to schools that have none of that.”

North scoffed at Republicans’ claims that school choice is the goal.

“The reality is the entity that gets the choice is the private school admissions office. They choose who goes to the school. They can choose to admit anyone or deny anyone. All this does is funnel funds to the private entity that’s choosing which students to let in.”

He pointed out the amount of each voucher would be considerably less than the cost of just about any private school’s tuition. Private schools would use Kelsey’s vouchers to help cover tuition for football players, mainly, North said.

“I don’t want to be totally cynical,” North said. “But this will pay for the kids who can play ball.”

He predicted the bill’s supporters want to push through this law only so they can return to the legislature with a bill covering all of Tennessee and children, even those from wealthy families. Then most of the voucher program’s money probably would go to the parents of children who already attend private schools, North said.

A House Education subcommittee considered the bill last week in preparation for the upcoming session, hearing testimony from both supporters and critics. The debate became heated at times in a taste of the fight to come.

The House sponsor — Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville — dismissed the Big Four resolutions out of hand as a predictable case of public educators protecting their own turf.

“It wouldn’t surprise me if McDonald’s gave me a resolution saying we don’t think Burger King should be able to build anywhere near their restaurants,” Dunn said.

Rep. Jimmy Naifeh, D-Covington, shot back: “They’re all four opposed to it. Why do we think we know better than they do when they are elected by the local people? They’re closer to the people than we are. Why do we think we know better?”

Tennessee Education Association lobbyist Jerry Winters warned vouchers would be “bordering on catastrophic for public education” in Tennessee.

“We’re asking too much of public education by publicly funding private and parochial schools. There’s an old saying that I’ve heard. If you don’t want your children swimming in the public swimming pool, it’s your right to build your own pool. But you shouldn’t expect the government to do that for you, and that’s what this bill does. You ought to name this the ‘Leave Many Children Behind Act’ if you pass this.”

Via Web-based video conferencing, the committee heard testimony from Ohio Secretary of State John Houston, the champion of that state’s voucher program. More than 15,000 Ohio schoolchildren receive vouchers of up to $5,000 each. Only students attending chronically failing schools are eligible.

Houston said surveys show parents are “overwhelmingly positive” about the program, and 90 percent of families renew their vouchers each year.

“While school choice is not a universal savior,” he said, “… I really believe that all of our academic offerings in Ohio have been enhanced by the competition, by the innovation, by the freedom that it gives parents and students.”

When vouchers fall short of tuition costs, Houston said parents often make up the difference by working second and third jobs or doing odd jobs around the private schools their children are attending.

“To give their children a future, they are literally willing to do anything,” he said. “When you have to put a little something into it, whether it’s money or sweat equity, it means more to you. And it’s made the school more committed to the students to make sure they are successful.”

But Houston conceded, “I can’t give you longitudinal data” to show whether student achievement has improved. When he testified, Metro schools superintendent Jesse Register said, “There is simply no conclusive evidence that private school vouchers systems work.”

Register said vouchers would drain tax money from Tennessee’s already-underfunded public schools. Tennessee spends an average of $8,324 on each student while states with voucher programs are spending more, he said. Of those states, Florida has the lowest per pupil expenditure and that’s still $2,000 more than what Tennessee spends.

“House Bill 388 is at best a diversion. At worst, it undermines and derails our state’s destination in public education,” he said.

He said the state is poised to advance in public education with the reforms instituted two years ago to win $500 million in the federal Race to the Top competition.

“This legislation sends the message to current and prospective citizens and businesses in Tennessee: We don’t believe the reforms that have been put in place will work,” he said.

During his testimony, North likened vouchers to the federal government’s private industry bailouts that Republicans have railed against.

“Private schools are struggling, and like all private industry they have a couple of choices. Change their business and delivery model or seek government subsidies,” North said. “I don’t know what you think of the federal government’s bailout of the auto industry, the bailout of banks or Wall Street. But diverting funds away from public schools to bail out private schools is bad policy.”

He wondered what would happen if the legislature let citizens divvy up their shares of public funding for other government programs.

“I like the highway analogy. It’s not perfectly analogous but pretty close. I don’t drive very often on, say, Nolensville Road. I live in Madison. So I want my allotment of highway funds to be spent one-half on Gallatin Road, and one-half on the Kroger parking lot. It’s my money, right? I shop at Kroger, and I want it spent on the parking lot. But highway funds are for the general welfare. They benefit everyone. You can’t spend it to improve private property.”

Whether the voucher bill becomes law depends in part on whether the governor decides to support it. As he tries to make up his mind, Haslam says he has directed aides to gather information on vouchers and report back to him. But at least one key Republican already has announced he’s opposed.

House Education Committee chairman Richard Montgomery, R-Sevierville, announced at last week’s hearing that he will need at least a year to study the idea of vouchers before he might go along.

“The jury’s still out” on the education reforms just put in place in Tennessee, he said. “We have got to make sure what we’ve got out there right now is going to work for the benefit of children. I personally am going to be very, very reluctant to support a program like this.”    

26 Comments on this post:

By: tpaine on 11/7/11 at 6:51

I love Naifeh's argument. Who is closest to the child? How about the parents?
When "government schools" are failing minorities - only half actually graduate from HIGH SCHOOL - when the school parking lots are primarily used by drug dealers - when they're is absolutely no discipline in the classroom - when our SAT scores are flat as the rest of the worlds' increase - clearly the existing system - produced in the last decade by the Teachers Union with their budgets doubled -something has to change.
This isn't "the taxpayer's money," it's the student's parents tax dollars and those dollars should follow the child.
The goal should be the best education for the child possible not protecting incompentent teachers and fattening the union bosses wallets so this choice - all choices - should be available to the parents.

By: govskeptic on 11/7/11 at 7:42

Big 4 schools and the TEA! Now there is a combo that has lead the way for
many years toward the almost total collapse of the system. We have
Magnet Schools developed for those with political or business connections
to get their children into without having to pay the extra expense of Private
Tuition! While personally undecided about Vouchers, I'm certainly not
going to be persuaded by the opposition arguments of these two
extremely greedy and power hungry groups!

By: MemphisDweller on 11/7/11 at 7:58

Memphis is dying an agonizing death and turning into Detroit, a giant dead zone. Nashville is not much better. Vouchers are the only thing that can save the city from total collapse. The evidence is that vouchers actually improve public schools by increasing competition, but even if it did hurt them, so what. They can't get any worse. We are at the end of the line already.

By: RustyACE on 11/7/11 at 8:12

Dear Jeff Woods,

You seem to have left out of your article that the tax dollars that we Tennesseans pay into the system don't belong to the public school. This is private money that we give to the state for the education of our children.

Parents KNOW best where to get their child educated. YOU just stated this in your article. It is the PARENT's responsibility to GET their child educated. We as parents rely on the state to offer a good education, if this isn't being done to OUR satisfaction, then we need choices where to send our children. As fewer and fewer students attend particular schools, the STATE can then determine that that is a failing school and do something about it or, close it down and redirect resources to schools that are attracting more students.

The FOOD stamp program doesn't demand that you attend PUBLIC GROCERY stores to purchase only the crappy groceries that are being offered on the basis that if you shop at Kroger's, Publix, or other establishments that the employees will be out of a job. This is a weak argument and you know it.

The TNCARE program doesn't demand that you only get your health care from General Hospital. You can go to ANY healthcare establishment and if they take your iinsurance get healthcare. You can go to ANY emergency room and get emergency treatment. We don't worry that if we do that, that Nurses will lose their jobs.

You are just repeating the lobbyist arguments without any reporting on the facts. In fact the FOOD STAMP program is set up EXACTLY the way that we want EDUCATION of our children to occur. We want to be able to go into any school of our choosing and use those Education STAMPS to purchase the education that we want for our children...NOT YOURS.

If I wanted a lobbyist to stand in front of me and relay his talking points, I would find one. I expect you as a REPORTER to actually lift that pen of yours, dig a little and fact check the bilge that you were handed. If Ii didn't know better, I'd say that YOU were the lobbyist for the teacher's unions in this article.

If fewer students attend public schools, then there will be a higher teacher to student ratio and the school will need fewer resources and therefore require less money. I thought the Teacher-Student ratio being lower was good for our students.

So, in effect, the public schools are getting EXACTLY what is diverted to the Private Schools to TEACH NO STUDENTS at all. Now that is unfair. I mean for every million dollars that is "diverted" from public education, a million dollars magically is paid to public education for doing NOTHING other than existing, NOW this is a CRIME that you should be reporting on. 100% of what is being directed towards the education of a child should be the reponsibility of the parent to decide where to spend it. You put it on a VISA card, like they do with an FSA for healthcare. If they choose a public school, then that school should get the monies, if they choose a private school, then that school should get the money.

As public schools have less demand for teachers, guess what, private schools suddenly REQIRE more teachers. NO TEACHER loses their career.

Public schools SERVE the parents... NO ONE ELSE. That is why parents, tax payers, voters have CONSISTENTLY been against teachers UNIONS who a LONG history of stepping on the children, to help themselves first, and if little Johnny or little Susie gets help along the way, well that is just an afterthought.

Unions are not there for the children, they are ONLY looking after the pockets of their DUE paying members, not the parents, and for sure not the kids. They are the last ones whose opion we should listen to.

In conclusion, Mr. Woods, you are advocating exactly what Mr. Obama has taken away from the very children in Washington, DC. They had a program just like what we are proposing, but he stopped it, because he didn't want regular folks attending the same school that his prescious daughters were attending and cancelled the program.

TN's government is set up for the people of TN, not the Unions of TN. Freedom of choice is what we demand and I fully support the efforts of our law makers to make this a reality.

Russell Clark

By: Kosh III on 11/7/11 at 8:38

Nice rant Mr Clark. Where'd you cutnpaste it from?

Private schools can choose NOT to enroll a student. Do you really think that a parent from Bordeaux, Donelson or Ridgetop can afford the extra 6-7 thousand in tuition for Harpet Hall or that the school would choose to allow that child to attend?

This is just one more effort by the GOP to destroy our schools and societies and transform us into a plutocracy with a tiny superrich minority lording it over everyone else. This will continue the GOP's campaign to destroy the middle-class.

How blind can folks be?

By: yogiman on 11/7/11 at 9:07

Simply going back a few years in history shows how far the education of America's children hs dropped. Why, simply because of "guvmunt" control over the children's education. Ol' Uncle Sam decided all children should be tauch the same lessons, regardless of what part of the nation they lived in.

Back in the 'good ol' days', too, if you misbehaved in a class room the teacher shipped your ass and you didn't want your parents to find out about it. If they did, you got another whipping at home and worse than what the teacher gave you. I know, I've been there.

I know its hard to see for many of you today, but the government has slowly taken over the control of the citizens of our nation one step at a time in the past 100 years. What happens if you "correct" your child in public today? Why can't children be corrected in school? Why is such security systems being placed on school buses today?

The :guvmunt's" got "their" citizens under control.

Hopefully the citizens have woke up.

By: yogiman on 11/7/11 at 9:09

Sorry, ain't woke up yet. I meant taught instead of tauch.

By: jdftm1947 on 11/7/11 at 9:18

good morning
this is what you get when you elect republicans.. they have brainwashed t what was the middle class into thinking that they are rich .. when in truth they are the new poor and getting poorer . .as for those of us who are in what is called the poverty level . we are only getting poorer ..
so go for it take money out of public schools instead of working for better public education
and for those of you who will jump on the voucher program better start looking for another job to buy the difference in private schools
because that money you get aint buying nothing . .(see why we need better public
education)

By: american1974 on 11/7/11 at 9:28

The Law and Education

"You say: "There are persons who lack education," and you turn to the law. But the law is not, in itself, a torch of learning which shines its light abroad. The law extends over a society where some persons have knowledge and others do not; where some citizens need to learn, and others can teach. In this matter of education, the law has only two alternatives: It can permit this transaction of teaching-and-learning to operate freely and without the use of force, or it can force human wills in this matter by taking from some of them enough to pay the teachers who are appointed by government to instruct others, without charge. But in this second case, the law commits legal plunder by violating liberty and property."

(Loi) Frédéric Bastiat 1801-1850

By: BigPapa on 11/7/11 at 9:55

"Private schools are struggling ..." Is there any evidence to this statement? I think private schools are booming. They benefit from the collapse of the public education system and the ghettoization of public schools.

By: RTungsten on 11/7/11 at 11:05

@Kosh: You'd be shocked how many folks in Donelson send their kids to private schools. Not sure why you would put that in the group with Bordeaux and Ridge Top. Maybe you meant to say Antioch...

By: BenDover on 11/7/11 at 11:06

If you are removing the entire burden of educating a particular child but continuing to get half the money for it doesn't that give you more resources to educate the other children who didn't opt for the vouchers?

How is that destroying the system?

Additionally, how can you destroy such an abysmal system?

Arguments against just don't hold except to maintain the status quo when status quo is unacceptable.

By: BigPapa on 11/7/11 at 12:13

Yes, I am always amazed at the NEA TEA and teachers who complain about the dismal state of education yet oppose any and all means to make any changes to how we operate (other than to pay teachers more money.)

By: SchmartGuy on 11/7/11 at 4:48

At one point in my life I was for the idea of education vouchers, until I worked out the business dynamic of this. While this proposal is cloaked in the guise of helping the poor and middle class, I have heard it said many times before that a voucher system for all is the GOP objective. With that in mind, what would be the effect? There would be a strong and vigorous competition among schools to hire the best teachers. This would cause the parents with wealth to be the only ones to be able to send their children to such schools. The free market idea carries itself right on down the line. Average teachers will be in average schools teaching middle class children. And poor teachers will be left for the public system which will be a poor family's only choice.
The preceding will take time to become reality. In the meantime, I believe that we have a shortage of teachers NOW. One of their objections is the constant evaluation process they now undergo due to their 'under-performance' being the cause of the current crop of students under performing, when other parts of the problem (parents) are being largely ignored. Just think how popular 'going into teaching' will be when it's dog-eat-dog to get a good teaching job! Vouchers will make this much worse.

By: bartsdad on 11/7/11 at 7:14

Undermines the meaning of 'private school' and 'public school'. You want your kid to go to a private school...pay for it yourself. In the meantime, put our work and taxpayer dollars towards improving our public schools. This is silliness and greed.

By: Nitzche on 11/7/11 at 8:47

This is silliness and greed, public schools are just fine, stop trying to change what is working!

By: BenDover on 11/8/11 at 4:55

SchmartGuy, my degree is in math education. I don't teach because the field does not reward based on performance and has no path for a lateral move from the private sector regardless of the talent or performance of the individual. Protectionism never creates a better product or a better value for the consumer.

By: Loner on 11/8/11 at 7:31

This is the same old crap in a new wrapper...once again, the born-agains want everyone to help pay for their bigotry. Too bigoted to attend and support public schools, these Southern crackers want the beleaguered taxpayers to fund their white supremacist, educational ministries.

Not much has really changed in the minds of the Southern whites since they abandoned the Democratic party and went over to the Republican side...their mantra is still the same a it was in 1964..."two - four - six - eight - we don't wanna integrate!"

Now, with the racist Tea Party running the show in Tennessee, these bigots have been re-emboldened and reinvigorated.

Your governor is a frustrated preacher boy; he'll do whatever he can to break down the wall of separation between church and state....Gov. Haslam is using his office to promote his filthy brand of Christianity. Throw the bum out!

By: Nitzche on 11/8/11 at 9:19

love the North East....wait a minute, I don't live there anymore? wow, the stupiid born-agains!

By: BigPapa on 11/8/11 at 11:33

Nitzche
Do you really believe that public schools are perfectly fine? Im hoping you are being sarcastic and it just didnt translate to the written word.

By: pswindle on 11/8/11 at 5:55

Does Sen. Kelsey want the government to pay some of his kids or grandkids private school tutition? Sounds fishy to me.

By: macjedi on 11/9/11 at 9:19

Yet another collection of commentary which is misspelled and features grammar issues. It is so hard to want to read almost anything down here.

Couple that with the automatic "UNION BAAAAAD" response from most locals, and I'm out.

By: pepawjoe on 11/9/11 at 11:06

As long as there's been Government involvement in the decision making process that has a direct effect on the Public at large, $$$ will be the most important ingredient in the decision process.
It's the Policies and Regulations, coupled with Qualified Teachers who need to be addressed "FIRST".
When a individuals "TENURE" is more considered than one's success record in the classroom, there's a serious problem that "MUST" take presidence over longivity everytime.
Here's a personal testimony, My oldest Daughter, attended kindedrgarten and first grade in the Metre School System. My in-attention to the Reality of her first two years, even though there were questionable times I should have been more demanding on her behalf, I simply didn't , and therefore she fell further and further behind, yet receiving passing marks. A family move to another school zone proved to be the reality of her past learning experience. At the New school, second grade was way beyond her capabilities. She was found to be just above a Kindergarten level.
After several meetings with school officials, I chose to put her in a private scool and repeat the first grade . I kept her in that private school for two years, very expensive, but she greatly improved her grades and study habits.
It clearly indicated the lack of observation to the Metro School Program. And in my personal opinion, the lack of concern for both her teachers, and the School she attended!
If the Quality and expertese of those teachers had been a top priority, I don't think my daughter would have been "LEFT" to fend for herself.
Why sould there even be a program for a parent to seek, just so her child can get a quality education? It sounds like some schools aren't providing a proper learning enviroment, including the quality of teachers. Why do we have to make such a choice in the first place? Sounds more like the sythoms far outweigh the efforts to acheive equaliy! The "BAND-AID FIX"!

By: pswindle on 11/9/11 at 6:25

Do you think that the parents that are struggling to keep their children in private schools would lie down and let someone else come in with public money. You talk about a revolution, there will be one. A lot of private school parents are doing without to give their children this opportunity. This is where their priorty lies, and to let others waltz in with voucher money. Don't even think about it.

By: tgs on 11/18/11 at 8:07

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By: tgs on 11/18/11 at 8:08

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