Critics of a bill to create a school voucher system in Tennessee characterized the plan as a “bailout” for financially failing private schools in a legislative hearing while proponents hailed it as a needed new choice in education.
Rep Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, sponsor of the pending voucher bill, compared public school systems opposing the idea to the McDonald’s chain board of directors telling legislators, “We don’t think Burger King should be able to build anywhere near our restaurants.
He also challenged opponents of the bill to let him pick which schools their children should attend. None accepted his offer to “put them in the shoes of the parents they’re trying to deny.”.
The hearing before a subcommittee of the House Education Committee last week was a prelude to what is shaping up as the most combative education issue for the 2012 session of the Legislature.
The voucher bill, HB388, sailed through the Senate in the past session on a generally party-line vote – Republicans for, Democrats against – but stalled in the House subcommittee as some Republicans joined Democrats in voicing misgivings about the measure.
The subcommittee heard first from Ohio Secretary of State John Husted, who as a legislator sponsored Ohio’s voucher law in 2003. Speaking via teleconference, Husted painted a glowing picture of Ohio’s program, which now provides state-funded vouchers to more than 16,000 students at 310 private schools -each voucher worth $4,250 in grades K-8 and $5,000 for grades 9-12.
The pending bill for Tennessee would apply only to the state’s four largest counties and only children eligible for free or reduced-price lunches would be eligible. But both critics and supporters say the see that as just a starting point.
School boards representing all four of the impacted counties – Knox, Davidson, Hamilton and Shelby – have passed resolutions opposing the bill. Jesse Register, superintendent of Nashville schools, and Mark North, a member of the Nashville board, served as spokesmen for all the “Big Four” school systems at the hearing.
“Diverting funds away from public schools to bail out private schools is bad policy,” North said.
House Speaker Emeritus Jimmy Naifeh, D-Covington, sounded a similar theme. He said many private schools, especially those catering to families with modest income, have seen enrollment drop during the recent economic downturn.
“Because enough of them are in financial trouble, this may be somewhat of a bailout for them,” he said.
Mary McDonald, superintendent of Catholic Schools for the Diocese of Memphis, objected to the “bailout” characterization.
She said the vouchers would supplement programs already underway in Memphis, where a privately-funded scholarship program has allowed reopening of eight schools to serve students in inner city Memphis. Those schools have a waiting list that could be reduced with state-funded vouchers, she said.
Register said the voucher bill comes with Tennessee schools already dealing with “some of the most aggressive reforms in the nation,” including a new teacher evaluation system, a new tenure law, expansion of charter schools, tightening of test standards and abolishing most collective bargaining for teachers.
Legislators should allow time for adjustment to those changes before adding vouchers to the mix, he said.
Critics of the bill also said Tennessee ranks among the lowest states in the nation in funding public education and cannot afford to send public money to private schools.
Dr. Kenneth Whalum, a Shelby County school board member who dissented from the board’s majority vote opposing the bill, told the legislators that denying vouchers to poor students was the equivalent of denying lifeboats to passengers on the Titanic, or saying, “let’s let all our children drown rather than save any of them.”
Gov. Bill Haslam has declined to take a position on the bill, saying he wanted to study the issue in depth and make a decision before the 2012 session begins in January. Dunn said in an interview that Haslam’s endorsement would be crucial to the bill’s passage of the bill.
“That makes people comfortable and that’s what’s important down here, it seems,” Dunn said.
Note: An edited version of this post is HERE.
See also op-ed pieces in Sunday’s Tennessean.
There’s one by Joy Pullman, managing editor of School Reform News, saying the voucher bill is a great idea and critics are misguided:
School boards in Tennessee’s largest districts have begun a furious public relations campaign to thwart attempts at democratizing education by offering school vouchers to some of the state’s poorest families in Nashville, Chattanooga, Knoxville and Memphis.
And there’s another by Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga, who says the bill is a bad idea and proponents are misguided:
The debate over school vouchers in Tennessee is akin to planting a plastic flower in a garden. While it may look good at first, it ignores the true, hard work needed for strong, healthy plants.
The Tennessean editorial board, meanwhile, proposes to put the voucher bill off a while and think about it.
Reform-minded members of the Tennessee General Assembly want to turn around the fortunes of struggling students, and do it now. It’s a worthy goal, but not all proposals that are being put forward are fully baked.