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.”