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The real motive behind Gov. Bill Lee's dishonest school voucher plan

Dr. Bill Smith, Community Voices Columnist • Updated Apr 4, 2019 at 9:06 AM

In his first State of the State address on March 4, Gov. Bill Lee announced a plan to fund what he calls educational savings accounts. Everything about his proposal is fundamentally dishonest, including the name.

Lee’s program has nothing to do with savings accounts. As Beth Brown, president of the Tennessee Education Association said, “This is just a voucher scheme.” Lee apparently thought he could disguise that fact with semantics, so he avoided using the word vouchers throughout his address. Clearly aware of the public’s and Legislature’s past resistance to voucher initiatives, he framed his proposal instead as a way of increasing “choice” for parents. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who was in Nashville April 1 to voice her support for the plan, even touted it as “freedom” for parents.

Lee’s plan allocates $25 million, providing parents of up to 5,000 students in designated low-income districts with $7,300 each to pay for private school tuition or other approved educational expenses. The flimsy rationale for calling these allotments educational savings accounts is the premise that parents can put aside some of this money for their children’s future college expenses. However, it’s hard to imagine how families living in poverty could use this allocation to purchase schooling for their children and still save for college. Most private schools cost more than $7,300 annually, meaning that the majority of the eligible students won’t even be able to afford the cost of quality non-public schools, much less save anything.

Maybe Lee has something else in mind. Penny Schwinn, our new education commissioner, surely has plenty of Teach for America friends — like the acquaintance she gave a no-bid contract in Texas — who would be happy to establish some Tennessee for-profit schools and demonstrate their business-like efficiency. That is, they can hire unqualified teachers for low pay, screen out special needs children and other struggling students, and eliminate any kind of curricular or extra-curricular offerings that don’t directly result in higher test scores. They’d gladly accept $7,300 per student, award themselves generous salaries, and still manage to provide healthy profits to investors — all with our taxpayer dollars.

Lee surely doesn’t want us to know that ESA plans in other states have been susceptible to fraud. An audit in Arizona uncovered $700,000 in losses and documented widespread abuse by voucher recipients, including parent purchases of beauty supplies and sports apparel.

At this time, it’s unclear whether Lee’s plan will enable religious schools to receive state funding. However, even folks who don’t mind a little intermingling of church and state — as long as the preferred church is their church — should look carefully behind the door Lee may be prying open. If government funding can benefit one religion, it can benefit any religion. Florida has an ESA program, and reports indicate some schools there receive state allocations and quietly promote Scientology to the children of unsuspecting parents. I wonder how many Tennessee citizens want their taxpayer dollars being used to spread the gospel of L. Ron Hubbard.

Lee anticipated criticism his plan would drain resources from public education by announcing he would “invest at least 25 million new dollars in public schools in the first year” to compensate for funding they would lose when their students use vouchers to be educated elsewhere. The key phrase is “first year.” All he’s doing is giving public schools a one-year reprieve from the revenue loss they will suffer in all subsequent years. How could anyone believe that’s not going to hurt these schools long term?

Of course, Lee has the perfect answer: “Creating competition will provide a new incentive for schools to improve.” In other words, if you threaten to pull students away from struggling, low-income schools, their teachers and administrators will be motivated to try harder.

Here’s a question for Lee and other disciples of the business-inspired strategy to reform schools by incentivizing educators — first through test-driven accountability and now with voucher initiatives: if your corporation initiated a strategy in multiple sites across the country and none of them showed the expected improvement for more than three decades, would you continue that approach? I have to ask, because y’all have been telling us for at least 35 years that education needs to operate more like a business. Do successful businesses relentlessly pursue failing strategies for decades?

Since the federal government’s 1983 publication of “A Nation at Risk,” the driving force behind educational policy has been the belief that incentivizing educators to work harder will fix every real and perceived educational problem. In the push to pass No Child Left Behind in 2001, George W. Bush and his allies tweaked this narrative by focusing on poor children of color and assigning the blame for their academic struggles on teachers’ “soft bias of low expectations.” Politicians from both parties enthusiastically supported this landmark act, embracing the idea that stringent test-driven accountability measures would erase racial and class disparities in academic achievement.

Measures of educational quality indicate our schools have slowly and steadily improved in recent decades. We can debate whether that’s because of accountability legislation or in spite of it, but this much is absolutely clear: by no means have teacher accountability reforms been a cure-all, and they certainly haven’t brought us anywhere close to achieving academic equality for all children.

Educators know what’s needed to improve low-income schools, but elected officials have chosen to do nothing other than incentivize educators — thus ignoring the challenges faced by low-income students and effectively blaming the people who are trying the hardest to make a difference in children’s lives. Teachers in low-income schools don’t need incentives. They need help and support.

Most of my first 14 years as an educator were as a teacher and administrator in poor, rural schools in the South Carolina Lowcountry. The majority of my colleagues grew up in communities much like the ones where we taught. Some were teaching in the same schools they attended as children, and many spent their entire professional lives in the same school. They didn’t hold low expectations for their students who were poor or black. A generation earlier they were those children. Their students’ life experiences were their life experiences.

I’ve had somewhat less experience in urban schools, but everything I know about them tells me that many teachers there fit the same profile. That is, they come from the same backgrounds as their students, and they became teachers because they wanted to have the same impact on children’s lives that their teachers had on them.

By suggesting teachers in low-income schools need to be incentivized, Lee is perpetuating a political lie that has persisted for too long. Other than their parents, no one cares more about the academic success of low-income children than their teachers — and certainly not a millionaire businessman who’s trying to turn public education into a profit-making enterprise for wealthy investors.

So please, Governor Lee, if you’re not going to promote responsible educational legislation, at least quit pretending you’re the one who’s engaged in a noble effort to lift up the underserved. The dishonesty is appalling and insulting.

Dr. Bill Smith of Johnson City is a public school advocate and retired educator.

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