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Vouchers proposed again; school boards last year OK’d resolutions against them

Madison Mathews • Feb 1, 2013 at 9:14 PM

When it comes to school vouchers, some local public educators believe the argument boils down to the philosophical question of whether private education should be funded by public education dollars.

In fact, one local school official sees Gov. Bill Haslam’s limited education voucher bill as a sign of abandoning what public education offers.

“There are thousands of highly successful public schools. It seems more practical for the state to funnel those students or those funds to one of the more successful public schools rather than turn the education of those children to a private entity and in turn pay that private entity to educate them. It seems counter-productive to me,” Washington County Director of Schools Ron Dykes said.

State Rep. Matthew Hill will be meeting with members of the Johnson City Board of Education this morning to discuss the governor’s voucher proposal and the issue of school safety. Hill also will be meeting with the Washington County Board of Education to discuss the same issues Monday morning.

Both school boards passed resolutions last year in opposition of the pending state legislation that would create a voucher program allowing students to use public education funding to pay for private school tuition.

The bill, as it’s currently written, would only apply to low-income students in Tennessee’s lowest-performing schools, meaning that it would not have a direct impact on local school systems.

Both Johnson City and Washington County schools are among the top-performing systems in the state.

But it’s the precedent the bill could create that is making public educators squeamish.

In the resolutions passed by both boards, school officials said, “vouchers eliminate public accountability by channeling tax dollars into private schools that do not face state-approved academic standards, do make budgets public, do not adhere to open meetings and records laws, do not publicly report on student achievement, and to not face the public accountability requirements contained in major federal laws, including special education.”

It’s the lack of accountability that Dykes said is one of the leading reasons why he vehemently opposes public funds flowing to private institutions, especially at a time when school systems are trying to stay in line with new curriculum standards.

“There’s no question it rips the resources away from public education at a time when accountability has been raised to a level that far exceeds any other time in history. If public education is going to be successful ... it’s going to need additional resources,” he said.

If vouchers become a part of the educational landscape of Tennessee, Johnson City Schools Superintendent Richard Bales said private institutions should be measured by the same standards by which the state measures public school success.

“Private schools are not under the same amount of accountability sanctions as public schools, meaning they don’t have to met the same performance levels, they don’t all have the same standardized testing,” he said. “To me, if vouchers were to be more broadly implemented, then I feel they would need to come under the same accountability standards as public schools.”

The only type of voucher program Dykes would support is one that used public funds to send students in low-performing schools to another public school, rather than cutting off funding from public education in favor of private education. Dykes said funneling resources to higher-performing schools and replacing administration and faculty in schools that were consistently under-performing would be a better way to utilize funds to help improve the state of education in the state.

“If a school is that failing, the state simply needs to shut it down and realign not only those students to other schools but the funds that follow them in the public sector,” he said.

Bales said he would support that type of program more than a voucher program that supported private institutions.

Anytime public funds are used to further private education, Bales said it has a financial impact on public schools, which could create serious problems for school districts if the bill passes.

“Schools in the eastern part of the state are great performers. I think the issues come with the larger metro systems that the consistently failing schools. Those are really going to see the impact and that’s the really the impetus for this billing. The problem is it could eventually impact the smaller systems who are doing very well,” he said.

While most public educators remain opposed to school vouchers, private educators believe there could be benefits to such a program.

Ashley Academy Headmaster Tyler Fleming, who worked in public education for more than 30 years, said he believes a voucher program could greatly benefit students who are falling behind in under-performing schools.

By going to a private school, Fleming said the student would be able to be in a small class, allowing for greater teacher-to-student interaction.

“Our role is to always follow the Tennessee curriculum, but we can do so much more to supplement the Tennessee curriculum of our class sizes and the unique population that attend the school,” he said.

Although there would be benefits, such as more funding coming into a private school, Fleming said he also sees some problems with a voucher program.

If a private school, like Ashley Academy, is flooded with students taking advantage of school vouchers, Fleming said class sizes would increase, taking away one of the benefits of private education.

Fleming hopes legislators keep that in mind in their discussions.

Another plus to the voucher program would be allowing private schools to grow, especially if they experience an influx of new students.

“If we have a voucher system where the tax dollars would follow each child that came here and we had a portion of that money and we continue with tuition, it would certainly open up some opportunities for us,” Fleming said.

Whatever happens with the voucher proposal, Fleming said the program needs to be meticulously planned with input from both public and private educators to ensure the funding is truly helping students.

“I do believe that there are children and families that the education system is not reaching and anything that we can do to better offer services to those families. I think we’re making Tennessee a better state and our communities better and our communities stronger,” he said.

For more on Haslam’s proposal, visit http://1.usa.gov/X0dU1Z.

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