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Crowe opposes statewide school choice, but will support school voucher pilot program in Shelby County

Tony Casey • Mar 10, 2017 at 11:21 PM

State Sen. Rusty Crowe may be hesitant to support “school choice” legislation in Tennessee, but he’s still going to support a bill that would put into place an experimental school voucher program in Shelby County.

“Although I do believe school choice can be a good thing for some, especially low-income underprivileged students in failing school districts, I am always very hesitant, however, to support voucher legislation, as I have received numerous resolutions from my school boards, city and county commissions asking that I not support this sort of legislation,” Crowe said to the Press.

The Shelby County bill — Senate Bill 161, filed by state Sen. Brian Kelsey — is one of two bills that would move the state closer to being more school choice-friendly. It would test the Memphis area’s schools, to see if it would work across the entire state. Crowe can get behind the thrust of this experiment.

It would be offered only to students within the Shelby County Schools system, as it’s the only system to have at least thirty schools in the bottom 5 percent of schools in terms of academic achievement, as ranked by the state’s Priority List.

Kelsey’s bill would put a cap of 20,000 vouchers across the state by the 2020-21 school year, according to the Tennessean.

Crowe, R-Johnson City, gave the reason that school vouchers transfer money from public schools to private institutions, and doing the opposite might be on the Johnson City-area state senator’s radar as a solution.

“I realize that the longterm solution is to fix those poor schools,” he said.

Rep. Bill Dunn, a Republican from Knoxville, the sponsor of the other school, would disagree that adequately funding failing schools is a solution. He blames the bureaucrats that, he says, get in the way of a student and their education.

His school choice bill, House Bill 0336, which doesn’t have Crowe’s support, and has come up in the past, would be far more reaching than Kelsey’s bill. For that, Dunn said he’s backing off of his to let Kelsey’s pilot program gain momentum in the state.

“The thought is that the pilot program would have the best chance of passage,” Dunn said.

Dunn said even though the confirmation of President Donald Trump’s education secretary Betsy DeVos, a school choice advocate, has brought this conversation to the forefront, he’s been an advocate for school choice since 1994. Dunn supports DeVos’ efforts.

Dunn said his conscious is what makes him advocate for school choice, which critics say would continue to strip funds from public schools that need it now more than ever.

But he doesn’t agree with that logic.

“We've increased funding at an amazing rate,” Dunn said about school funding. “If money was the total answer, the schools would be totally turned around.”

Bureaucrats involved with public school, he said, care more about money than children. He even went on to say if a house was on fire, he thinks bureaucrats would rescue money before children from the flames.

The state representative who advocates for school choice never attended a public school himself, nor did his children. They were home-schooled. Dunn said he does have family members who are teachers, though.

One of the critics of this school voucher push in Tennessee is the president of the Johnson City Education Association, Joe Crabtree, who also teaches at Indian Trail Intermediate School.

He does, however, fully support a parents’ right to help guide their child’s education.

“The teachers of Johnson City fully support a parent's right to choose,” Crabtree said. “They are, after all, their child's greatest advocate. Parents should be the ones who know their child's needs the best, and therefore should be able to make decisions to that effect.”

But that support ends before school vouchers.

“While this bill is slated to be restricted only to the Shelby County School System, we see this as an effort to bring vouchers statewide in the near future,” Crabtree said about Kelsey’s bill. “Most of the bills we have seen in recent years have called for an initial amount of vouchers in the state to be followed by an incremental expansion across the state.”

Crabtree’s reasons for opposition include that vouchers could be used for religious schools, that private and charter schools don’t have the same accountability standards, that it supports a policy of abandoning — rather than helping — schools that need help and that school voucher programs have the ability to spread statewide quickly after the Memphis-area experiment, defunding public schools even more.

Email Tony Casey at tcasey@johnsoncitypress.com. Follow Tony Casey on Twitter @TonyCaseyJCP. Like him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tonycaseyjournalist.

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this story referred to Crowe as a state representative.

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