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Local public school leaders criticize governor's voucher legislation

Brandon Paykamian • Apr 17, 2019 at 11:27 PM

Some local school district leaders believe Gov. Bill Lee’s Education Savings Accounts Act could ultimately hurt public school funding.

The legislation was approved last week by the Senate Education Committee and House Finance Subcommittee. It aims to provide $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, and seeks to create an annual $125 million voucher entitlement program.

Critics of the legislation view the bill as an attack on public school funding. They say it aims to divert funds from public schools.

Both Washington County Schools and Johnson City Schools recently voted on resolutions opposing the legislation. 

During the Johnson City Board of Education’s last meeting on April 4, Superintendent Steve Barnett said he’s concerned the legislation could affect funding for public schools and staff raises. 

On Tuesday, Barnett weighed in further on the bill and emphasized his opposition to the legislation yet again.

“The state government has not clearly identified how we will pay for these accounts. Funding these education savings accounts will eventually erode financial support for public schools, which will impact our ability to recruit and retain great teachers,” Barnett wrote in an emailed statement to the Johnson City Press. “Tennessee is still in the bottom 10 states in regards to school funding, even though we have made improvements in teacher pay and have increased the rigor of our standards over the last decade.

“The ESA Act will likely not help the students in failing schools Governor Lee is attempting to support,” the superintendent continued. “It will most likely take funding from schools and systems that are working for students, thus weakening public education in Tennessee.” 

Washington County Schools Director Bill Flanary had a similar view on the matter. While he said he supports “the right of each parent to determine the means by which their child is educated,” he opposes the idea of diverting public funds for private education. 

“The education savings account is a voucher system that would do just that — channel public funds toward private schools that are not held to the same level of accountability or oversight as Tennessee's public schools,” Flanary said. 

“Washington County Schools routinely asks Washington County taxpayers for more operating funds as budgets are developed. At the same time, the state legislature is moving toward pouring millions of taxpayer dollars into private schools rather than assisting local public schools,” Flanary continued. “This just doesn't add up. Our state's constitution says that Tennessee residents are guaranteed a free and appropriate public education. I would emphasize the word 'public.’” 

But Ashley Academy Headmaster Ramona Harr said the issue doesn't have to be viewed as a “public versus private” school battle.

Harr has worked within the public education system before, and she said she “doesn’t have any desire to be competitive with the public schools.” 

“For our area, we have some phenomenal public schools, and I don’t know that this (legislation) could change much,” she said, adding that the legislation also aims to bolster other private, specialized educational services and homeschooling. 

She said she sees the legislation as a potential “opportunity of choice for parents.” 

“I certainly don’t want to take away from public education, but as I’ve said before, there are some children that are better served in an environment like ours and vice versa,” she later continued. “It’s about the children and parental choice, and I think that’s important.”

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