Almost 90 percent of the children in our state currently attend a public school. Our organization, Professional Educators of Tennessee, continues to oppose vouchers here in Tennessee.
Politicians across Tennessee, who ran for election or re-election in 2016, ran on one message: Tennessee is on the right track in public education. Nothing has changed.
The National Assessment of Educational Progress is the largest nationally representative and continuing assessment of what America’s students know and can do in various subject areas. Tennessee is No. 1 in improvement in both English and math for both 4th and 8th grade on the 2012 NAEP test scores and is No. 1 in improvement in science on 2016 test scores. We are on the right track according to state politicians and referenced in testimony by economist Art Laffer in the Tennessee General Assembly in 2017.
Here are some other points to consider:
• Private schools will eventually be subjected to new regulations. There will, and there should be, strings attached if any school takes taxpayer money. Just look at this quote: “A public school would become any school that receives students who brought with them public monies,” said U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, former secretary of education under President George H.W. Bush. His words should serve as a warning to all private and parochial schools.
• There are very limited seats available in accredited private schools. In Florida, as vouchers were expanding in 2003, it was discovered that a state of 24 million had less than 5,000 seats in private schools available. Florida was a rapidly growing state and is approximately four times the size of Tennessee.
A best estimate is there are only 1,200 to 1,500 seats available in Tennessee at accredited private schools that may be willing to take a voucher student. We would challenge voucher proponent to produce the statistics of seats available at an accredited private school that would accept a student for a $7,000 voucher.
• Public Schools are more than a safety net. Many schools serving poor children throughout the United States are overwhelmed by the social needs of the children they serve. According to the United States Department of Agriculture , 15.3 million children under 18 in the United States live in households where they are unable to consistently access enough nutritious food necessary for a healthy life.
These eight states have statistically higher food insecurity rates than the U.S. national average (14.6 percent): Arkansas (21.2 percent); Mississippi (21.1 percent); Texas (18.0 percent); Tennessee (17.4 percent); North Carolina (17.3 percent); Missouri (16.9 percent); Georgia (16.6 percent) and Ohio (16.0 percent).
More than one in five children are at risk of hunger. Among African-Americans and Latinos, it’s one in three. Our public schools are dealing with this issue, largely without additional resources or even acknowledgment by state and federal officials. Taking money from public schools, either rural or urban districts, will impact that school and community.
It is important that we remind ourselves of the purpose of public education under the Tennessee Constitution: “The state of Tennessee recognizes the inherent value of education and encourages its support. The General Assembly shall provide for the maintenance, support and eligibility standards of a system of free public schools.” Tennessee has a responsibility to ensure the right of all children to a quality education.
Most educators do not support the status quo in public education and strive to raise the bar every day. They understand an engaging and challenging education is the proven path to prosperity and a life-long love of learning. It has long been acknowledged that a strong educational system is essential not only to the successful functioning of a democracy, but also to its future. Therefore, we remain focused on our public schools in Tennessee, the teachers we serve and the students they serve.
JC Bowman is the executive director of Professional Educators of Tennessee, a non-partisan teacher association headquartered in Nashville.