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Vouchers and Williamson County

As we have stated repeatedly, we believe that the way to build and strengthen a world-class public school system is to make sure that public schools are adequately resourced. We believe that public tax dollars should be invested in public schools and not be diverted for vouchers to go into private schools. We think investment in our public schools is the best policy choice for our kids, our communities, and our schools.

Vouchers are a form of privatization, i.e., turning over public tax dollars to private entities to educate kids. This is the standard definition – see, for example, the use of terms here or here.

Please note that the Williamson County School Board has resolutions in place against vouchers and charters.

Last week, State Senator Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown) filed a “Tennessee Choice and Opportunity Scholarship Act” bill. (Note that “Opportunity Scholarship” is the Americans for Prosperity euphemism for vouchers.)

Governor Haslam’s voucher bill that passed the Senate last year would have excluded Williamson County Schools. But Kelsey’s new bill (SB 122) adds a provision that would open the door for all districts to allow vouchers if the local school board and county commission voted for it. This would allow districts to waive the low-income requirement and other stipulations. Students could also use a voucher as partial payment for private school under this provision.

The press release in support of the bill points to a Friedman Foundation study that states that Williamson County could use the bill as a way to divert public tax dollars to private schools while maintaining property tax rates. (Friedman Foundation is a pro-privatization think tank.)

“The “Local Control” provision could help residents in fast-growing counties save millions in property taxes. Rather than building a new $25 million school every two years, counties could instead send some new students into the Opportunity Scholarship program. A recent study by the Friedman Foundation estimates the bill could save Williamson County $319 million over the next five years and prevent a potential property tax rate hike of 6 to 7%.”

On the other hand, at a September 29 meeting of the Tennessee County Commissioners Association, the organization’s executive director said that school vouchers would be “the greatest nightmare counties have ever faced.”

David Connor, executive director of Tennessee County Services Association, explained:

“Existing public schools have fixed overhead costs, such as debt from building programs or maintenance costs for school facilities. If you suddenly make it possible for 10 percent of a school’s population to leave, and take their tax dollars with them, that could have a devastating impact on the school system’s financial status and viability. One would think that variable costs, such as the number of teachers, could be cut to match a smaller student population, but that isn’t always as easy or efficient as it seems.”

Fast-growing counties like ours would “have to borrow even more for each new building project to fund the share of that expenditure which would have to be given out in the form of vouchers.”

We will be covering this bill and other voucher proposals in more detail in days to come. We urge you to read the bill yourself, especially section 49-1-1209.


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