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Hold all Tennessee children and families harmless from dangerous vouchers

Dr. Bill Smith, Community Voices Columnist • May 2, 2019 at 8:00 AM

Merriam Webster defines a voucher as “a coupon issued by government to a parent or guardian to be used to fund a child’s education in either a public or private school.” By that definition, Governor Lee’s so-called Education Savings Accounts are vouchers, plain and simple. He can call them anything he wants, but it won’t disguise the fact that his plan is no different from programs elsewhere that have resulted in poor academic performance, fraud and mismanagement, and the transfer of taxpayer dollars to religious schools and unscrupulous venders.

At this moment, Lee’s dangerous proposal is moving through the legislative process at a speed that ought to concern all Tennessee citizens.

On April 23, the Tennessee House passed Lee’s voucher plan by one vote, but only after hours of arm twisting to secure the support of reluctant representatives. The bill had been amended six days earlier by Deputy Speaker Matthew Hill to limit its impact to Davidson, Hamilton, Knox, and Shelby Counties — all urban school systems with substantial numbers of poor, black students.

Hill’s amendment also provided that struggling schools in other parts of the state would be eligible for annual school improvement grants. He apparently promoted these changes to assuage the concerns of educators and other citizens who realize Lee’s program will result in a loss of financial support for our state’s already underfunded public schools.

After the House vote, Hill explained, “I wanted to make sure we had a piece of legislation that helped the children in the failing schools, but held my schools and my teachers harmless. With my amendment, they’re held harmless from ever having (education savings accounts) affect them.”

Notice that Hill twice used the term “held harmless” in referring to children, teachers, and schools in his district. If excluding “his” children, teachers, and schools from this legislation means that they will not be harmed, doesn’t that mean that the children, teachers, and schools in the affected cities will be harmed?

In effect, Hill admitted Lee’s voucher plan will hurt the people it directly targets — a pronouncement we should all remember, especially when the governor and Republican legislators like Hill tell us they’re promoting it because they care so much about children in struggling schools.

As noted in the Press on April 24, other Northeast Tennessee Republicans voting for this bill were Timothy Hill, Micah Van Huss, Bud Hulsey and John Crawford. However, the most critical vote in the House came from Republican Jason Zachary of Knoxville, who broke a tie and sent the bill forward by changing from “no” to “yes” after receiving a promise from House leadership that Knox County would also be “held harmless” (his description) — presumably after members from both chambers meet in conference to reconcile the differences in their bills. Like Hill, Zachary clearly wanted to convince his constituents he wouldn’t inflict the same harm on them that he’s more than willing to inflict on Memphis, Nashville, and Chattanooga.

Voucher supporters in the Tennessee Senate engaged in the same kind of legislative malpractice in passing their bill. By a vote of 20 to 13, they “held harmless” all of the state except for metro Nashville and Shelby County.

Ultimately, education in all of Tennessee will suffer if Lee’s voucher plan becomes law. Contrary to Lee and other supporters’ insistence that public education will not be affected, funding allotted for vouchers reduces the funding available for public schools, especially those in the urban areas targeted by these bills.

Further, no one should believe for a minute that limiting the voucher plan to our largest cities means the rest of the state will be forever “held harmless.” Republican leadership has been promoting vouchers nationally since at least the 1980s. The success of their efforts has been gradual and incremental, but steady. Voucher programs are now in effect in about half the states, and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has made school privatization the singular focus of her administration.

We also need to remember that Lee’s voucher plan is seen as a pilot program — in other words, an initiative that will expand if it’s deemed successful. In the end, it’s doubtful that evidence will factor into the assessment of this program. Lee and his supporters are going to make the case that vouchers are effective, one way or the other. The history of voucher promotion indicates that rhetoric and ideology always supplant data and logic.

Ethically there’s an even bigger problem here. With their very words, Hill and other lawmakers have confessed that their plan will hurt children, educators, and neighborhoods in urban areas that contain high concentrations of low-income, black citizens. It’s one thing for state legislators to pretend that children who are poor and suffer from the historical disadvantages of racism don’t need any special support. It’s another thing to promote a harmful bill that specifically targets them.

We need to slam the door shut on this voucher plan now. If it becomes law, it will ultimately affect all Tennessee public schools. In the meantime, local voters need to remind the governor and state legislators that they cannot protect “our” children unless they protect all children. Every child who resides in Tennessee is ours, and the people we elect to public office have a responsibility to serve them all.

Any public official with an ounce of ethics or courage ought to recognize that.

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

Editor’s Note: This column was penned before Wednesday’s report drafted by a legislative conference committee to reconcile the two voucher bills was released.

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