Senate approves school voucher program for state's largest cities

Thursday, April 21, 2011 at 2:29pm

A school voucher program for Nashville and other large Tennessee cities cleared the Republican-run Senate Thursday, and the state teachers’ union immediately accused the majority party of trying to destroy public education by draining away tax money.

The legislation would give low-income students an opportunity to receive what the GOP sponsors are calling “Equal Opportunity Scholarships” to attend the school of their choice, including private religious schools. The bill applies to students who are eligible for free and reduced-price lunches in Nashville, Memphis, Shelby County, Chattanooga and Knoxville schools.

“Equal Opportunity Scholarships provide impoverished children with hope for a better education and choice in the school they attend,” Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, said of his bill. “With this bill, children need no longer be victims of their own geography.”

In a statement, Tennessee Education Association Director of Government Relations Jerry Winters said the following:

“The public ought to be outraged that 18 members of the state Senate voted for a blatant voucher bill which will drain much needed funds from public education to private and parochial schools. Not only does this bill rob public schools, but it raises serious issues when public tax dollars go to schools which promote a particular religious viewpoint. I would hope that when the first tax dollar goes to a religious school, a lawsuit would be filed to question its constitutionality. Several members of the Senate seem almost intent on destroying public education, and the children of this state will be the real losers.”

Both Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey and House Speaker Beth Harwell praised the bill. Ramsey called it “monumental.”

“Children should not be forced to attend a failing school just because they live in a certain neighborhood,” Ramsey said.  “Equal Opportunity Scholarships will allow all children to receive the quality education they deserve.”

Harwell was more reserved in her comments but agreed the state ought to try vouchers to see if they improve schools.

“What I hear from every educator who really truly cares, they say, ‘Give us one more tool in our toolbox, one more option for a child.’ Having three children of my own, I can tell you all three of them are in different schools because children learn differently. Why take that option away? If it can help a child, let’s pursue it,” Harwell said.

The companion bill in the House remains in a subcommittee, raising questions about whether the measure will become law this session.

House Republican leader Gerald McCormick said, “The scheduling works against it this year. Certainly we want to make sure it’s done right before we push it all the way through. So I don’t know that we’re in an urgent rush to get that done.”

Told of McCormick’s comments, Ramsey expressed surprise and promised to push for passage in the House.

“I’ll get to work on that,” Ramsey said.

The scholarships would amount to $5,400 in Nashville and Memphis, $4,600 in Chattanooga and $4,300 in Knoxville — half the money that state and local school systems spend on each child.

35 Comments on this post:

By: David_S on 4/21/11 at 2:34

That quote shows you exactly what is wrong with teachers unions:

"The public ought to be outraged that.... (this bill) will drain much needed funds from public education to private and parochial schools. Not only does this bill rob public schools...."

Right there. Teachers unions think that public schools exist for the sake of themselves. Supporters of this bill believe public schools exist solely for the purpose of educating our children. Not for paying teachers, not for providing government jobs and benefits. For educating kids. And if our public schools can't do it, maybe we should let the people decide who can.

By: futrconslr on 4/21/11 at 3:30

Hopefully this will at least cause a little up-tick in the level of customer service received from the school administration and teacher. If I am not happy at least I have to the option to send my kid somewhere else with money I have already paid which is an option I don't have now.

By: mg357 on 4/21/11 at 4:21

Here's the catch phrase in this idea; private and magnet schools maintain a very strict curriculum of dress code and maintaining a certain GPA. When you compare the tuition of private to public schools, we are talking a considerably higher monetary bracket. The downside is that if the student cannot maintain the gpa; out he goes and back to the public sector. Does anyone really believe that this won't cause an uproar among the parents of children in private school who already are double taxed; once for public and then out of pocket expense for private to isolate their children from the riff raff in public schools? This will bear watching for

By: mg357 on 4/21/11 at 4:27

One thing I neglected to mention; in many private and parochial schools, Bible reading and prayer are done on a daily basis which is good. They also say the pledge to our flag each day. Think that won't interfere with the folks who demand the separation of church and state? Oh and one other thing; the parents are involved in their child's education in these schools which will be a crapshoot for

By: revo-lou on 4/21/11 at 4:31

The error in the thinking of this bill, and its intent, is that private schools are going to accept all, or any, of the students with a voucher. Just because one has the funds/voucher does not mean that they have the ability to go to the school of their choice. Most, if not all, private schools have admission test as well as academic standards pre and post admission. How would the esteemed state legislature suggest that that hurdle be cleared?

I wonder what the state will do when the private schools raise the price of their tuition higher than the value of the voucher?

This is a stupid idea now, just like it always has been.

By: revo-lou on 4/21/11 at 4:37

{“Children should not be forced to attend a failing school just because they live in a certain neighborhood,” Ramsey said. “Equal Opportunity Scholarships will allow all children to receive the quality education they deserve.”}

More ignorance from the “boot-boy”. Any student in metro can attend ANY metro school if they are in a poor performing school. Metro even HAS to provide bus service for that student, which is the only way most “impoverished” students have of getting to any school. Are we now going to be providing bus service for these students to the private school of their choice?

How little our “leaders” know of the workings of the cities in their state.

By: JeffF on 4/21/11 at 4:44

Its almost as if this stuff has not been tried in other states if you listen/read many of the statements of the antis.

In several areas Catholic schools have seen a dramatic increase in enrollment once vouchers were implemented. These Catholic schools take all comers as long as the parents of the children are willing to enforce the schools' rules regarding behavior, punishment, effort, uniforms, and culture.

Most of the local private schools are not Catholic. But I guarantee that a few if not many will be more than glad to join their Catholic school brethren and view this as an opportunity to reach out to the disadvantaged. Even if the best privates do not join (ahem MBA, Harpeth, BA, BGA) the remaining schools are more than ready to continue to outshine the pathetic, cruddy public schools these kids have been held prisoner in for decades.

No family and child who wants to succeed in this world the right way will be unable to find somewhere to go that is better than what MNPS has to offer a majority of its students.

MNPS can crow about their two highly ranked magnets all they want. Once vouchers become available the majority of kids who have been excluded from the rare magnet school experience will be able to find something akin to hitting the lottery on their own. And the women who wear their hats to board and commission meeting in Memphis and Nashville will be unable to stop the loss of their own power over these poor kids.

By: JeffF on 4/21/11 at 4:46

Revo, it must be a dream come true to get bus transportation to take you to a far away somewhat less cruddy school instead of the nearby cruddy school. That is unless you do not get your number called in the magnet lottery, then you are just out of luck right?

By: JeffF on 4/21/11 at 4:53

Eleanor Holmes, the nutjob representative from D.C recently chose to back teacher unions rather than her own citizens when she demanded that the federal government do something to end the voucher program in her own district.

By: JeffF on 4/21/11 at 4:58

What has revo the most torn up, money going to private religious schools instead of the MNEA or money possibly going to the half dozen or so bordering public school systems (all of which are better than MNPS) that would be willing to take this money and shove their success with these same kids in our faces?

Doesn't bother me one bit to see some MNPS schools closing and some teachers losing their jobs. Real competition will ensure that the losing schools and teachers were the ones that sucked anyway.

By: revo-lou on 4/21/11 at 5:15

Jeffery, your projections are way off, but I am thrilled that I got to you.
Both of my kids are in magnet schools, for whatever that is worth. There are many issues I have with this plan. In no particular order, there are many students whose family’s financial situations are well above the poverty level, but insufficient to fund private school tuitions. If the voucher system is to work properly (i.e. increase the awareness at public schools of their success) then they need to be available to all students in the system. Next, given that our current transportation system is tenuous more times than not, adding more schools and wider varying routes is a cost that has not been included in the cost of this system, as the idea will not work without transportation also being provided.

Then, there is the simple academic issue of abilities. If the students are coming from troubled schools, how much effort will be required, and how will the system be implemented including funding, to get them to the entrance level requirements of their chosen school?

And I really have no problem with the funding of private religious schools getting government money. I am sure Akiva and USN will receive much of the voucher business. NOT! I wonder why?

By: JeffF on 4/21/11 at 5:41

Congratulation on your kids winning the I Have A Future Lottery. If only Nashville leaders tried to build other good schools rather than new convention centers then there would not be so many people walking around waiting for their turn in jail or public housing.

Transportation was something Nashville should not have got into the business of and this is a great opportunity to get out of it. Parents taking vouchers should be expected to buy bus passes or get their kids to schools themselves.

Catholic schools take all comers in most cities regardless of ability. What they do not do is pass kids along before they attain grade level appropriate skills. Nashville and the state will have to send a lot of kids to 3rd grade for a couple of years whereas they did not have to do so in MNPS.

Akiva does restrict to just Jewish kids. USN is not a religious schools and is run by a private institution that prides itself on excluding locals, particularly those of poor academic standing. What was your point, don't do vouchers unless we MAKE all private schools take all kids? If no private schools take vouchers what problem do you have then, classism?

i think the problem most voucher haters have is that the good kids will leave and miss out on the urban class warriors indoctrination. Better to have the best and brightest (those not winning the lottery) languish with the huddled masses than excelling on their own with some good education opportunities offered by religion?

I think we are all smart enough to know that MNPS will never be fixed by the people currently allowed to run the place. The union controlled educational system in Nashville and most every other U.S. urban center is broken. But these same bosses will fight the attempts by outsiders to fix the broken system. The only fixes put forth by these bosses since the 60s? Higher pay, more teachers in smaller classes, teachers and ex-teachers on the school boards. Has that worked? Not in KC and DC. Not in Memphis. Not in California. Not in Cleveland.

It is time to break up the public school monopoly in Nashville that seeks power and money and gets upset when parents and elected officials ask for results. Break up these schools machines and allow the parents of imprisoned children who want to have a future do so. Even if it means the children and parents who actively choose to have no future have to go Lord of the Flies or Escape from New York.

I would rather free the imprisoned dreamers from a future of poverty and hopelessness than keep them chained to the people who choose to have no future in the public schools. Let the nuns have the dreamers and the MNEA have the hopeless.

By: mg357 on 4/21/11 at 6:33

Rev; for once we're on the same page. Here in Columbia, the parents provide the transportation to the private schools, there is no bus service. Second, you are correct about admission to private and magnet, they only want the best and brightest and discard the rest for obvious reasons. There are no half measures where parent involvement is concerned. The classes are smaller and the teachers make less than public school teachers but produce excellent results with college capabilities. You might call this cherry picking the best students but I see it as giving a child the best of the best education wise which puts them light years ahead of the public

By: sargon on 4/21/11 at 7:21

Rev -- Students from "failing" schools can attend only those schools that are not failing and have open seats...they cannot attend any school they want in the district. The magnets or lottery schools are not options, although the district did open up east lit a lottery school for nclb optional enrollment...i guess they had additional seats; the district is required to provide transportation for these students

for those kids eligible for free and reduced meals (roughly 3/4s of the district) the kids, i believe, can get free mta passes...

By: revo-lou on 4/21/11 at 8:13

The transportation issue id from NCLB, and so is the opportunity to attend any better performing school, even MAGNETS (saw it happen, twice, even watched buses deliver the kids to a “WE DON’T PROVIDE TRANSPORTATION” school). The high school magnets do require an academic ability, and there is some push back from the schools to accept all students.

While I realize that USN is non-denominational, it has a large Jewish base. Not that that matters because both of them, as well as the better private schools tuition rates will still be out of reach of those with vouchers.

Here is my beef with the system. I have been advocating this for some time. First, removing students that qualify (low income) will not make a poor performing school better. Second, the system has problems, no doubt, but the fix is not to pull pieces out of the puzzle, but to rearrange them so that they actually work. I have stated for many years that it is atrocious to not have all schools in the system perform and operate within the magnet model. The public system should be constructed to provide the absolute best to all students in all sectors.

Second, there is no way ANY system works without parental involvement, and it should be mandated for all parents in the public system.

Third, “teaching to the test” is asinine and limits educational opportunities. The system needs to teach to the student.

Fourth, the teachers are not the enemy.

By: JeffF on 4/21/11 at 8:45

The last concern anyone should have have is the state of the school. If the best thing for the puzzle pieces is to be pulled out then so be it. These puzzle pieces are human beings and it is morally wrong to sacrifice their futures in order to make a poor performing school marginally better.

I vote for making the schools compete for these kids rather than they simply be granted to them. Schools have been needing time to improve for 40 years now. "We promise that in 10 years we will produce better results." Never mind the 9 years of kids being sacrificed instead of treating them to the good stuff.

By: revo-lou on 4/21/11 at 8:57

Not saying the system doesn’t need to be fixed. Promising better results, 1, 5 or 10 years down the road means nothing if you continue doing the same thing and expect better results. Again, removing low income children from a school is not going to make a poor performing school better. Closing a poor performing school just moves those students left around in the system, The short comings of the current system is what needs to be addressed. It has been shown time and time again that large, comprehensive type schools to not work. Smaller classes and more direct instruction between a teacher and a student have shown much improvement in grades and future success for the student.

Alter the system, not the money.

By: house_of_pain on 4/22/11 at 3:37

I can't afford to send my child to private school, and I certainly can't be asked to help send other kids there. This is a bad idea, and needs to be shot down quickly.

By: american1974 on 4/22/11 at 6:30

"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."
Frédéric Bastiat (1801-1850)

By: Loner on 4/22/11 at 7:31

Will Muslims be able to send their kids to a local Muslim Madrassa (religious school) and get a good fundamentalist education on the TN taxpayer's dime...just like the Christians and Jews will be able to do, if this ridiculous bill becomes law?

Will the local "Branch Davidian-types" also be able to get in line for the generous taxpayer aid to their ministries?

Will the Papists elbow all the other Christians away from the feeding trough? This could get ugly.

What about the faith-based home-schoolers...are they invited to this feeding frenzy too?

The battered walls of separation, between church and state, are crumbling in Tennessee. Hopped-up Judeo-Christian zealots, with pitchforks and torches, are taking control of the statehouse...soon the purges will begin.

All this Christian fundamentalist Creationism and these faith-based agenda items are what the Tea Party is really all's about Judeo-Christian theocracy in America. It's not at all about extending and expanding our personal freedoms and liberties. On the contrary, the GOP-Tea Party monster is anti- women's rights , anti-GLBT rights, anti-union, anti-federal government, anti-Hispanic, anti-Islamic, anti-secular and anti-science.

Although mostly "anti-", the Tea Party /GOP agenda is pro-gun, pro-states rights, pro-business, pro-death penalty and pro-Israel....not necessarily in that order. They would have us believe that Jesus of Nazareth was also very much in favor of those agenda items. Of course, that's heresy.

The original Boston Tea Party patriots dressed up as American Indians, then boarded those ships and threw the British tea into Boston harbor. It was a shabby ruse that did not fool anyone. Flash forward to today.... the Tea Party charade has been exposed and revealed in Tennessee...take a good look at the ugly features of who and what is behind the mask of freedom.

By: Loner on 4/22/11 at 8:05

Louis Farakhan (and maybe Rev. Wright?) should set-up a bunch of Nation Of Islam schools and Christian Black Liberation schools, for those poor black kids stuck in those failing, secular-humanist, government schools...face it, those black kids won't be welcome in the white Christian segregation is the main reason those Christian schools exist.

By: Loner on 4/22/11 at 8:54

If this bill becomes law, I might just set up a Wiccan school and apply for the proposed faith-based funding. Wiccan is green, non-violent and tolerant...that's good enough for me.

Let's see, i rent a store front, (in the ghetto it will be cheap)...then I pack it with about fifty kids, each paying about 5G's, courtesy of the TN taxpayer....that's a quarter million right there...I hire of couple of religious zealots who work for peanuts....then I beat the tax man with a religious exemption claim.

Take out the word, "Wiccan" and substitute your own faith...if you have the hustle, you could cash in here too.

By: pswindle on 4/22/11 at 9:02

If a public school student gets a voucher for a private school, it will not be long until the private school is just like all the others. Here is the reason: Parents will not have any more interest in their child regardless where they go. The private schools will become dumping zones. We have good public schools with great teachers, but how can you teach with lack of interest from the students and parents. All it takes is one rotten apple to destroy the whole bushel. If the student is not preforming in one environment, do you expect miracles in another setting? I've seen this happen. Most of their behavior will not change regardless where they go to school, but change the atmosphere in their chosen school. When the GOP gets through with TN, will we like it?

By: mg357 on 4/22/11 at 9:53

Do any of you remember the debate on this subject between Gore and Bush? Gore asked Bush what would happen if the voucher failed. Bush replied that we would then give the voucher to the parent and let them educate the child. What a crock. The current cost here in Columbia is $6200 tuition for the school year which does not include transportation nor meals. Before you're admitted you must take a proficiency test for whatever grade you are entering. If you pass, you are on academic probation for the first semester. If your grades aren't up to par; out you go. There are no tatoos allowed nor multiple piercings{one per ear only} haircuts are mandatory for boys along with a belt. The girls blouses must be tucked in and the skirt must come to the knees. BS won't fly in private school and I don't think NCLB applies either.

By: Loner on 4/22/11 at 11:34

$6,200 per student per school year is not chump ghetto-based Wicccan school's will meet or beat that price...and the TN taxpayers will fork over the cash....we''ll have cheap school uniforms, bring your own lunch, no bus service, no gym, no sports, no shop, no music, no cafeteria, no auditorium, no swimming pool, no school nurse, no paid security staff, no playing fields, no parking lot...we'll cut overhead, using low-paid zealots to do the teaching...the kids will do the janitorial work and housecleaning as part of a skills practicum.

I hear the gurgling sound of flowing cash, about to burst forth, in a shower of taxpayer-generated, faith-based, educational funding....stand back...this could be huge.

By: mg357 on 4/22/11 at 12:15

Loner; you've got it goin on. As it stands, the taxpayers are paying close to $9000 per school year with 2 meals and transportation provided. Think you'll be able to handle all your applicants? Many of these kids also eat free breakfast at school, are you gonna provide that thrown in for good

By: house_of_pain on 4/22/11 at 12:41

Yearly tuition for the top private school, with no religious agenda, is $15K.

By: howelln on 4/22/11 at 3:23

I admit that I have not read all the comments before posting. That is, in part, because of the misconceptions in most of the posts.
A voucher of $5400 is not going to do much against the $20,000 per year that it costs to go to a private school once books and uniforms have been bought. Oh and school trips. Don't forget school trips. Private school can nickel and dime you to death.
Very few of Nashville's private schools are on MTA bus lines. Not sure how the students are going to get there.
The magnet schools do not have a strict dress code. Quite the opposite. We have realized that dress has very little to do with education.
In my public school, we do start each day with a moment of silence and the pledge of allegiance. I am not sure where the idea that the pledge left public schools came from. It probably came from someone who has never stepped foot into a public school as do most of these harebrained ideas.

By: frodo on 4/22/11 at 8:43

The sky is falling! The sky is falling! That's what some of you sound like with all of your what-ifs. Let's give this a chance. If it doesn't work as well as public schools, then we can rethink it. And who cares whether kids are learning about Jesus, Mohommed or Oprah as long as they get a good education. At least parents have a choice of religion with private schools. In public school it is the religion of the NEA, which is so far left of my beliefs that I'd like my school tax money back.

By: CrimesDown on 4/22/11 at 10:46

Teachers are not to blame for everything. The public schools are not good, they are overall terrible. Teachers, unions and parents should have done something long ago. If the teachers and the TEA had demanded better conditions for teachable children, they wouldn't be in the pickle they are in now.

By: Moonglow1 on 4/23/11 at 1:32

Moonglow1: so will my tax money be paying for Harpeth Hall, Montgomery Bell, & Ensworth all of which cost about $10k per year? Also will my tax dollars pay for a parent to home school their child to teach creationism or what about the hype about Sharia Law. Perhaps there are some Muslim schools or Hindu schools that would take advantage of my tax dollars. This is insanity & shame on the TN Education Association for not having mass protests like they are doing in WI. We need the national media to shine the light on the dark recesses of the TN legislators. When the light shines the cockroaches scatter.

By: frodo on 4/23/11 at 7:28

Moonglow, the light IS shining, and the cockroaches ARE scattering. But they aren't the ones you refer to.

By: Moonglow1 on 4/23/11 at 9:00

Moonglow1: Frodo-most of the people benefiting from the Bush tax cuts (over 250K) send their kids to Harpeth Hall & Montgomery Bell. So now is this tea party group giving my tax money over to this top 1 percent to subsidize their children to attend these schools. They get the Bush tax breaks & the other 90 percent do not, but the 90 percent are being asked to subsidize wealthy private schools. I'm just saying.

By: MamaD on 4/23/11 at 2:19

People who think that there isn't a plan to destroy public education needs to read Andy Smarick's "The Wave of the Future". He really tips the charter school advocates' hands about three fourths of the way through the article. I find it interesting that there is a link with our Comm of Ed and one of the four guidelines to destroy public ed. Smarick is one of the "founding fathers" of charters. Public ed gets slammed all the time. What no one seems to want to report is that charters take public money and operate like private schools. Private schools are set up differently than public schools. They choose who they want to take, and can show a student the door at any time. I wonder if private schools realize that as soon as they start taking tax dollars, that they will eventually come under the control of the state. Charters have a lottery, but then if the student doesn't follow their rules and guidelines, they too can show them the door. Public schools have to take every child that comes through their doors., there is no permanently removing them. Read about the health sciences charter in Memphis. The principal has chapel every Friday, and students who misbehave get paddled in front of the entire student body. Some parents went to the papers about their son getting paddled, and the principal said that they knew the rules when they enrolled their son. If a public school did this, they would be in court before they could turn around once. Poverty level children's parents normally can't come up with the difference between the voucher and the tuition.

By: frodo on 4/23/11 at 6:06

Why not let a portion of the taxes that wealthy people pay benefit their own children, wherever they choose to seek an education? The purpose of local school taxes should be to educate children, not to prop up the public school board. Some of you speak of fairness as if people with money got it unfairly and therefore it should be confiscated and spent only to help those who don't pay taxes. What is FAIR about that? It was interesting to see the other day a guy who went around a college campus asking students to sign a petition to make the top students give up some of their grade point average for "less fortunate" students. Not one would do it, even though they all thought it a good idea to take even more money from the rich to meet the needs of the "less fortunate." So much hypocracy.