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Invest in public schools, not private

Johnson City Press • Apr 14, 2019 at 12:00 AM

The available details of Gov. Bill Lee’s education savings account bill give a troubling picture of the freshman executive’s plans for the state’s public school system.

Approved Wednesday by lawmakers in the Senate Education Committee and House Finance Subcommittee, the existing legislation provides $7,300 to families of students enrolled in a school district with at least three schools in the bottom 10 percent of statewide academic performance measures.

That savings account, which is really a voucher called by another name to increase palatability, could be used to pay for tuition to another institution, including a private school. In the Senate committee last week, Sen. Delores Gresham, R-Somerville, amended the bill to allow children being homeschooled to use the funds.

The Gresham amendment also increased the scope of the proposed program, from 15,000 students over five years to 30,000.

Adding students being educated at home back into the mix flings wide the potential for the public money to be misused. Gresham’s assurances to her fellow legislators that the debit cards tied to the education accounts could only be used at specific points of purchase do little to calm our concerns that our tax dollars will be improperly applied.

The funding mechanisms for the plan are also suspect.

The voucher proposal will cost taxpayers more money. This is a fact not being disputed by anyone.

According to the state’s estimates before Gresham doubled the size of the program, it could cost an additional $125 million to execute Lee’s school choice plan. That’s double the full budget of all of Johnson City’s schools for a year.

According to proponents of the voucher system, the school districts losing students to the program will not lose any funding. But those public dollars to the districts are being made up using one-time grants, not recurring funding.

At any time after the first five years, those grants could disappear should the General Assembly not include them in the state’s budget.

Instead of allowing what will likely be an exodus of the better performing students from these underperforming districts, why not invest the proposed millions in improving the lagging schools’ outcomes?

Teachers and administrators from all over the state have stood in opposition to this potentially dangerous plan, and we stand with them.

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