It’s been a crazy time lately here in Tennessee. The Tennessee State Legislature is back in session, and that means it’s time for the annual school voucher battle. Forces from outside Tennessee have been attempting to push this legislation through for the last four years. Luckily, the citizens of Tennessee don’t take too kindly to outsiders telling us what kind of policies we should enact, and parent groups have risen up and pointed out the follies of the plan for school vouchers. But this year, things have gotten serious.
Last week, I sat in a sub-committee meeting and listened to the sponsor of House Bill 1049 , Representative Dunn talk about what dire straits our schools are in. You’ve heard the rhetoric before about kids trapped in failed schools. Supporters spout this rhetoric while ignoring the cost to our existing public schools and the lack of evidence that vouchers improve educational outcomes. Bill sponsor Representative Bill Dunn dismissed the potential damage that the siphoning off of public funds to schools through the utilization of vouchers could cause by saying, “In the end, the adults in (the schools), they’ll be OK, but the kids in them can’t wait.” Luckily, Rep. Karen Camper from District 87 provided me the opportunity to counter some of his heresy. (I only use that term because a potential amendment to the bill actually included the word blasphemy, so I thought I should stick with the theme.) It’s interesting to note that of those who spoke to committee for the bill, the majority of proponent were clergy and politicians while opposition was made up of parents, teachers, and other community members.
My opposition to voucher programs stem from my experiences as a parent at one of those so-called failing schools. First and foremost, I take great exception to someone labeling schools without ever setting foot in them. Our experience has been quite different than that described by legislators. Secondly, these so-called failing schools do face many challenges, none of which will be solved by vouchers. In fact, vouchers will actually hurt my child’s school. It’ll further siphon off families that would be able to help improve the school with their involvement and divert badly needed resources. Despite what House Majority Leader McCormick may claim, “The constant refrain has been we just need more money, what we’ve done the last five years is we’ve spent more money.”, Tennessee is not funding its schools appropriately. If they were, why would two major school districts feel compelled to file suit. What Tennessee children need is more resources, not lifeboats sailing off with a few select children as well as badly needed resources.
Want to see the disparities and differences between schools for yourself? First, go to any “failing school” and compare the facilities to any “great school,” and I guarantee you’ll see the disparity right away. Rep. Charles Sargent pointed out to me that the state doesn’t really fund capital projects; that’s left to school districts. Okay, fine, but then I ask why? If you think that the situation with children is so dire that you need to provide an escape hatch for some, why not be willing to explore ways to provide equitable facilities for all children? Why not truly bust down the old model and explore every avenue to provide the resources children need. Its a proven fact that quality facilities improve learning outcomes and kids can’t wait, right?
Next, I’d like you to examine the access to technology in both types of schools. Here’s another area where I guarantee you things will not be equitable. The “great schools” will have greater access because they have PTOs and involved parents who raise money to make sure that all their kids have access to the necessary technology. Those parents should be commended but it shouldn’t be their responsibility and the parents in the “failing schools” don’t have access to those revenue streams. Why does the state not make it an imperative to utilize all the means at their disposal to ensure that all children have equitable access? You can’t hold people accountable if you are not supplying the tools, can you?
Speaking of parents, let’s compare parental involvement in the “failing” vs. “great” schools. I promise that again, involvement will be much greater in the latter. Tusculum Elementary School has a large population of refugees. They cannot be as involved as other parents, not because they don’t care, but because they don’t yet have the capacity. These are people who are just trying to learn how to navigate the system, and now you want them to learn to navigate a voucher program? Legislators should be exploring ways to make a parents job easier not more difficult. Instead of putting this demand on parents, Tennessee state legislators could support community schools to facilitate parental involvement – that is, if this was truly all about “the kids.
Critics love to point out how school A is overcoming its challenges while school B is failing with the same demographics but seldom do they delve below the surface on these demographics. A favorite trick of politicians and reformers is that they will point to two schools and say both have high EL populations, but school A is doing really well while school B is failing. What they neglect to tell you is that the average education level of parents from school A is 9th grade and the average in school B is 2nd grade. The education level of parents makes a huge difference. Again, support of the community schools model would help combat this challenge. Instead of manipulating data to sell a free market narrative we should focus on utilizing that data to enact policy that is good for all kids.
Many of our most challenged schools have high populations of children who are learning English. Unfortunately, a lack of English proficiency leads to low test scores and high dropout rates. If we were truly serious about helping ALL kids, Tennessee legislators would start working towards legislation that would allow for dual language instruction and encourage districts to adopt robust ELL master plans. Nashville currently has one Spanish immersion school, Glendale Elementary School, and it’s a reward school. If this is truly about all kids, wouldn’t it make sense to try and replicate what a rewards school is already doing well?
Instead of adopting any of these ideas that are already proven to help children, we are choosing to adopt, at great expense, a plan that has been shown to hurt children. What a voucher program essentially does is ration high quality public education. Some children, namely those whose parents can navigate the system, will get a life boat to a potentially better situation. But what about those left behind? A vouchers plan does not offer a solution for those children. In fact, as blogger Steven Singer points out, it makes things worse.
Here’s another guarantee for you. Once this legislation passes, the majority of focus will shift to those children who received vouchers. Supporters will then cherry pick data that shows high performance for those children, and vice versa – the ones left behind will receive less attention and therefore less resources than they previously did. Who will want to focus on increasing the BEP when presented with manipulated data that shows those schools are failing and voucher students are soaring? The push to increase the number of scholarships will only increase. Which will lead to this all-important question: Where are the private schools that will take these children? Knoxville currently only has four schools that would qualify.
(ED Note: It has since been brought to my attention that the schools referenced in the linked article are actually schools in the bottom 5% and not private schools that would accept vouchers. Sources tell me there are no private schools that would accept vouchers in Knoxville which is even more troubling. Someone needs to get Andre Agassi on the phone quickly. Sorry for confusion.)
Google “private schools in Nashville” and you’ll get back 300 and some options. Now, cross out the ones that are religious-based schools. Then you can probably cross off the ones like Ensworth and Montgomery Bell Academy, unless the vouchers are going to be for $20k. What are you left with? That’s right – not a lot of options. But luckily there are people out there ready to build new schools as long as there are tax incentives and the profit margin is right. But this is for the kids though, right?
We need policy that benefits all children, like fully funding the BEP, for starters, not policy that attempts to pick winners and losers and just offers lifeboats to a few. Legislators need to take a hard look at where support for voucher programs are coming from. This is a policy that special interests are calling for and not parents. It’s a policy that will hurt many with potential to aid few. Chairman of the House Finance Committee Rep. Charles Sargent believes this is acceptable: “I’m not saying this program is going to work, but if I save 20 percent of [children not graduating in some schools] I feel we’ve helped someone.” American’s don’t elect official to work for the 20%. They don’t elect them to push legislation that wouldn’t even affect their district at the behest of special interests. They elect them to fight for legislation that benefits us all.
Tennessee’s voucher bill passed out of the finance committee this week and heads to the full House next week. I’d urge all legislators to heed Representative Craig Fitzhugh’s words: “How can we take money from failing schools and give it to private schools? We’d do better to take money from schools in the richest neighborhoods, not the poorest.” I couldn’t agree more and if you agree, I urge you to contact your representative and let them know. Sign the petition