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Why are we even talking about vouchers in Williamson County? The $319 million question

We have lots of concerns about vouchers including their unproven record in improving educational outcomes for the kids they supposedly serve and that they defund public schools and divert tax dollars into private schools which do not have the same accountability as public schools.

For the moment, though, let’s focus on money and on the bill that seems to be focused on Williamson County Schools. This bill – SB 122 – is championed by Sen. Brian Kelsey of Germantown and is co-sponsored by several other senators, including Williamson County’s state Senator, Jack Johnson. The press release on the bill highlights only one county – yes, Williamson. (For more information on the specifics of the bill, see below.)

We’re trying to figure out why there’s a bill at all that would – if the school board and the county commission voted for it – send public dollars to private schools so that kids (even wealthy kids) currently enrolled in excellent public schools could get public funding to attend private schools. Private schools would not be obligated to provide any special education services. But they would get 90% of the average per-student cost, money that would come directly out of the public school budget.

The old mantra of voucher promoters – giving poor kids a ticket out of failing schools – seems like a stretch here. So who is pushing vouchers for Williamson County and why? The press release says the bill could save Williamson County $319 million over five years.

That sounds pretty tantalizing, right?   However, school and county officials across Tennessee (and everywhere else) argue the opposite – that vouchers create enormous financial strain on public schools. They say that school costs are largely fixed, and that voucher programs allow private schools to selectively accept the easiest and least expensive students to educate, generally leaving behind students with greater needs and fewer resources. The Executive Director of the Tennessee County Commissioners Association called vouchers’ negative potential effect on county budgets “the greatest nightmare counties have ever faced.”

Milton and Rose Friedman

Milton and Rose Friedman

So where does the magical $319 million figure come from? The press release cites the Friedman Foundation, a major national advocacy organization for school privatization. The group’s founder was the late economist Milton Friedman who first floated the idea of vouchers in 1955.

Friedman wanted to privatize schools and thought that vouchers were a way to get to a fully privatized (and for-profit) school system. He said, for example: “Vouchers are not an end in themselves; they are a means to make a transition from a government to a market system.” He was clear that he wanted a “private, for-profit industry to develop” in service of a “radical reconstruction of the educational system.” The Friedman Foundation produces reports that always point to the need for more privatization of public schools. Always.

The Friedman Foundation told us that the $319 million was not from a Friedman study but that their office advised Sen. Kelsey on how to estimate the savings. (We also left a message for the research staff at Sen. Kelsey’s office but did not receive a response.)

But actually, it is pretty simple. Here’s how you get to $319 million* in savings…

  1. Take WCS’s five year capital plan. Don’t fund it. We wouldn’t need new schools because all the growth (projected at 1,100 kids next year) would somehow be immediately absorbed by private schools who would find a way to build additional facilities and educate all those new kids for only $5,500 per student per year. There are currently 14 private schools in Williamson County with a total enrollment of 3,520 students K-12. To achieve the savings, it would also be necessary to stop investing in the schools we currently have. No new roofs, no paving, no new transportation spending, no new auditoriums, no renovations of old schools. Nothing. Total savings: $311 million per the capital plan

  2. Pay out vouchers worth 90% of the operating cost to educate an average student. The Friedman Foundation estimates this as a per-student savings of $447 per student per year. They assume 1,100 students the first year and 1,100 additional students each year after that for five years total. Total savings: $7.4 million

  3.  Don’t count all the vouchers that will go to students who were going to go to private school anyway. That would produce (tens of?) millions in extra expenses for the county. Don’t include that at all.

(* The Friedman Foundation told us that the calculations of the new schools portion of the capital plan was cut to $294 million, and $25 million in savings is from the 90% funding of the vouchers but that math just doesn’t add up.)

So there you go. If you stop investing in public schools on both the capital side and the operations side you will save money. You’ll have run down schools and will still have many of the same operating expenses with less funding. You could see this as a really, really good plan for the market changeover Friedman described. Stop funding and building schools. Pull money out so the offerings at public schools are less robust. Eliminate arts and athletics programs because you’re short on funds.

“Vouchers are not an end in themselves; they are a means to make a transition from a government to a market system.” – Milton Friedman

“The most feasible way to bring about a gradual yet substantial transfer from government to private enterprise is to enact in each state a voucher system that enables parents to choose freely the schools their children attend. I first proposed such a voucher system 40 years ago.” – Milton Friedman, 1995


What does the voucher bill do? SB 122 could open the door to privatization in Williamson County schools.

  1. Much of the text of the bill would be unlikely to apply to Williamson County. It includes requirements that students be low-income, that they are currently enrolled in “low-performing” schools, and that the voucher would have to be full payment for the private school that took the voucher. There would also be a cap on the number of vouchers statewide, starting at 5,000 in 2015 and rising to 20,000 in 2018.

  2. The final part of SB 122, though, would toss some of those limits aside if a current or future school board and county commission voted to create a voucher program using their own eligibility standards. They could open it up to kids of all income, to kids currently zoned for and/or enrolled in great public schools. Vouchers issued under this provision would also not be capped, and the voucher could be used as a partial payment for a larger tuition bill. Students would have to be enrolled two semesters in public school before they could get a voucher, but then they could conceivably get one every year after that.

  3. In all cases, private schools accepting voucher money would NOT be required to provide special education services.


Breaking News!

Voucher bill SB122 went to the Senate Education Committee on February 11. The final section of the bill, 49-1-1209, which would have opened the door for all districts to allow vouchers if the local school board and county commission voted for it while waiving the low-income requirement and other stipulations, was AMENDED OUT of the bill. The amended bill includes requirements that students be low-income, that they are currently enrolled in “low-performing” schools, and that the voucher would have to be full payment for the private school that took the voucher. There would also be a cap on the number of vouchers statewide, starting at 5,000 in 2015 and rising to 20,000 in 2018. It passed the Senate Education Committee with 5 yes, 1 no, and 3 abstain votes and will be moved to the Senate Finance Committee.

Thanks to all of you who wrote to our legislators and school board members, and a big thank you to Senator Jack Johnson for listening to concerns about the bill he co-sponsored with Senator Kelsey.

If you are interested in speaking against school vouchers in Tennessee, make plans to attend the No School Vouchers – Capitol Hill Advocacy Day on Tuesday, March 3, with Tennesseans Reclaiming Educational Excellence – TREE.


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