Gov. Haslam's push for school vouchers, potential privatization of state public school industry irks local teachers and administrators

Tony Casey • Jan 24, 2016 at 10:23 AM

On Thursday, Gov. Bill Haslam announced he will join more than two dozen governors nationwide next week in celebrating “School Choice Week,” which champions the idea that privatized, non-public education can be an option for students using public taxpayer dollars.

“Tennessee recognizes the essential role that an effective and accountable system of education plays in preparing children to be successful adults,” Haslam said in a release about the event, set for Jan. 24-Jan. 30. “School Choice Week raises the awareness of the importance of education options.”

These options would most likely be about limited, government-funded school vouchers, redeemable for tuition fees at a school other than the public school that a student could attend free. Conservative groups across the state have applauded Haslam’s support as a step in the right direction for private education in Tennessee.

But Haslam’s call for strong academics makes no mention of public education, which is what critics say this is all about: more Tennessee-sponsored privatization of things that have been traditionally public.

House bill 1049, which made its way out of the state house budget subcommittee Wednesday, would, according to The Tennessean, “have to qualify for free or reduced lunches and be zoned for or attend a school that is in the bottom 5 percent of all schools in the state. The bill caps the number of students who can apply, with an eventual expansion to 20,000 vouchers.”

The issue hasn’t been as big a talking point for the Johnson City Schools system as it has in other parts of the country because of its school achievement levels.

Supervisor of Instruction and Communication Debra Bentley said the system doesn’t have any schools within that threshold, so it hasn’t come up very often with the school board, though they’re aware changes could be coming at the state level.

“This would more apply to urban areas, large cities like Nashville and Memphis,” she said.

Ramona Bird, who goes into her final year of teaching at Sulphur Springs Elementary School with 40 years of experience, said she’s very passionate about public education and when discussing this matter likes to cite the state’s constitution, which mentions public education, though Haslam did not. She also serves as the secretary for the Washington County Tennessee Education Association.

“The state of Tennessee recognizes the inherent value of education and encourages its support,” Article 11, Section 12 reads. “The General Assembly shall provide for the maintenance, support and eligibility standards of a system of free public schools. The General Assembly may establish and support such post-secondary educational institutions, including public institutions of higher learning, as it determines.”

Bird can quote it by memory and is also willing to show anyone her tax returns, which show the $2,000 to $3,000 out-of-pocket expenses she accrues every year to make sure her students — many of them underprivileged and eligible for reduced-price or free lunches — have adequate resources.

She assures she is by no means the only teacher to operate that way, and it’s sad to her, that Haslam and the state would get behind this continued push both to underfund public schools and then give taxpayer dollars to private, money-making institutions in the form of school vouchers.

“I think you have private entities that see public funds and they see those dollar signs,” Bird said. “They’re raiding public funds and they’re in it for profits, as multimillionaires and billionaires.”

This is common across the country, Bird said, because many Americans are angry and want to blame it on anything related to government, which includes public schools. On the contrary, Bird said, public schools should not be stripped of their dollars so private schools can prosper. Instead, money for public schools should be increased so they can remain a great equalizer.

Ron Dykes, director of schools for Washington County, agrees that there’s lots of money to be made and that public education isn’t the vehicle upon which this money should be made.

Dykes said he’s seen two studies, coming out of Wisconsin and Washington, D.C., that have shown that students who go to private schools don’t do any better, academically, than those in public schools. That leaves him wondering why there’s such a push, especially from the Haslam administration, to move students from public to private schools.

He’s been adamant in his opposition to this voucher program for going on four years since these conversations began.

“I’ve been very vocal about opposing the voucher program,” he said. “We need adequate funding for public education, which struggles enough to maintain status quo.”

There’s a two percent annual rate of inflation, but Dykes hasn’t seen his stretched budget get better.

The voucher program would take money out of the public schools, giving some arbitrary amount for an individual’s education that could be used as full tuition at another institution, or a piece of it. This would allow more well-incomed families to bridge the gap to get their children out of schools where education isn’t the same, leaving behind lower-income students, which critics say could be the pre-cursor to a shift in social structure.

Private schools haven’t had to operate under the same regulations as public schools, Dykes said. He added that school voucher programs tend to bring in the more wealthy families who can bridge the financial gaps between what the vouchers cover and the full tuition. That, he said, leaves lower-income students in a position in which the less-funded public schools would be the only option.

“There’s a national and state movement to narrow the gap between various groups, like those with disabilities, behavioral and academic issues, but with this voucher program, that gap would get wider,” Dykes said.

Licensing of instructors at these private schools, he said, is also not clear and this is another thing also not regulated by the state and that these private schools can even opt out of taking state tests like TNReady and other TCAP tests.

Dykes’ plan for helping education in the state would be pretty much the opposite of Haslam’s. Pulling funding from public education and giving it to private schools is not the fix he sees as effective.

“If a school is failing, you fix it however you need to, whatever it takes,” Dykes said. “Even if it means bringing in an entire new faculty and staff, but you don’t bleed it and expect it survive.

Dykes falls just short of joining Bird in saying private monetary interests are at the root of this push.

“Those pushing this agenda are the only ones who can tell you why they’re doing that,” Dykes said, with a laugh. “But they’ll tell you they want to help these students.”

Email Tony Casey at [email protected]. Follow Tony Casey on Twitter @TonyCaseyJCP. Like him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tonycaseyjournalist.

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