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On Saving Kids, Williamson County, and Voucher Myths

Courtesy of Tennesseans Reclaiming Educational Excellence

Courtesy of Tennesseans Reclaiming Educational Excellence

The voucher bill will be decided by a full vote of the House on Monday at 5 p.m. Pro-privatization groups have spent almost a million dollars on campaign contributions to elected officials and pro-privatization candidates over the last several years; they have spent at least that much in advocacy and independent expenditures.

We don’t have millions of dollars (in fact we have none). We’re just public school parents who know how valuable our public schools are.

Vouchers would transfer public school dollars to private schools, including religious schools. Our entire legislative delegation is FOR the voucher bill.

Want to weigh in with your elected officials in the state legislature? Do it this week.

Myths we’ve heard recently

This bill will NEVER affect Williamson County.  This bill, the way it is written right this minute, would likely not affect WCS or FSSD (unless we had a school in the bottom 5%). Last year’s version DID have a section that could affect Williamson County; our legislators swore up and down it wasn’t in there. But here’s what we know and what the legislators know as well. Voucher programs expand. That’s what they do. Passing a small voucher program and then expanding it has been the political model all over the country. Some Tennessee legislators have already said that this program should be expanded.

Let’s take a look at Arizona, one state among many that could tell this same story:

“An Arizona House proposal would remove limits on the state’s school voucher program and allow every public school student to use state cash to attend a private school. “The expansion proposal in House Bill 2482 is the latest in a series that began after the Republican-controlled Legislature created the Empowerment Scholarship Account program in 2011. “The program initially only applied to students with disabilities and was sold as a way for parents to choose private programs that best suited their children.”

Vouchers “save” kids.  Legislators have repeated this myth and haven’t offered evidence to back it up. They take it as an article of faith that vouchers will save kids. In fact, there’s no evidence that vouchers improve outcomes for kids. In fact, studies not founded by the privatization industry show mixed or negative effects. A recent Brookings study of vouchers in Louisiana demonstrated that “winning” the “lottery and getting a voucher actually led to worse outcomes for kids. In Milwaukee, where they have twenty-five years of voucher experience, they still found that public school students outperform voucher students.

If this is about “saving” kids “trapped in failing schools,” why is the voucher program opened up to ALL students in a district with at least one school in the bottom 5% if unallocated vouchers remain?

49-1-1208 (b) In any application period, if, after all possible matches of eligible students with participating schools have been made, the number of scholarships awarded does not meet the number of scholarships available under this part, the remaining scholarships may be awarded to students who reside in an LEA that contains at least one (1) school in the bottom five percent (5%) of schools in overall achievement as determined by the performance standards and other criteria set by the state board and otherwise meet all other eligibility requirements as set forth in § 49-1-1202(2).

Vouchers are a “free market” solution.  Privatizers say that in order to improve outcomes, we need to let the free market do its thing. We are big believers in innovation and the power of the free market, but that’s not what this is. If legislators and their pro-privatization backers really wanted to test voucher operators’ ability to do better than neighborhood schools, they would:

  1. Make sure the accountability standards are exactly the same

  2. Require voucher funded schools to provide special education services under the law as public schools do

  3. Impose no selection criteria, i.e., accept all students

  4. Provide the services required by some students, including transportation.

But that’s not how it works. This bill:

  1. Does not require publicly funded private schools to require kids to take TNReady state tests

  2. Does not require publicly-funded private schools to provide special education services

  3. Allows private voucher-funded schools to select the students they want and create criteria to keep difficult/ hard to educate students out.

That’s not a free market. That’s creating an unbalanced playing field where the fix is in before the game even starts.

Vouchers have broad public support.  Without a doubt, this bill has support of the moneyed interests behind it. But what about parents and teachers? Glen Casada said that his 2016 survey showed that 52% of his District 63 voters are for vouchers, and 41% are opposed. We don’t know how Casada get this number; his recent survey doesn’t have a single question about vouchers. This is also a “survey” that goes only to Casada’s mailing list (not all voters) and requires you to mail it back with your own stamp?

Here’s what we know: Public school parents of all political stripes have objected to the voucher bill. The WCSB passed a resolution against vouchers in 2014. In fact, all 141 school districts in Tennessee are opposed to it. Both teachers’ associations (the larger Tennessee Education Association and the much smaller Professional Educators of Tennessee) are ideologically opposed and don’t often work together, but they are both on the record against vouchers. Tennessee Organization of Superintendents opposes vouchers. The Tennessee County Commissioners Association is opposed to the bill.

Memphis is begging for this bill, and we should give it to them.  So sorry, no again. The bill passed the House Finance, Ways and Means Committee 11-10. All three Memphis representatives (Camper, Cooper, and Miller) voted no. Suburban Rep. Steve McManus voted yes. In the Senate, the results were mixed with Kelsey, Norris, Tate voting yes and Harris and Kyle voting no.

Democrats Karen Camper, Barbara Cooper, and Larry Miller voted no. They all represent Memphis. Republican Steve McManus, of suburban Cordova, voted yes.

Rep. Larry Miller, a voucher opponent from Memphis, said during the Finance Committee meeting:

“Everyone’s always saying they know what’s best for the children of Shelby County Schools. Do they?” “We have choice, and I think we’re making a grave mistake.”

Memphis voucher opponent Rep. Barbara Cooper based her decision to vote no on her experience as a teacher.

“I hope that enough of our House members can search their hearts and know that we can’t afford to leave any child behind.”

We’ve written a number of pieces about vouchers. You can read them here.


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