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Local public education supporters rally against Gov. Bill Lee's voucher plan

Zach Vance • Apr 23, 2019 at 8:37 AM

No matter what shape or form Gov. Bill Lee’s school voucher proposal takes, public educators from Northeast Tennessee made it clear Monday they oppose any state dollars going to private schools.

Roughly 50 to 75 public education supporters gathered Monday to hold the “Rally for Public Education!” which began on the steps of the old Washington County courthouse and concluded in front of the Washington County Detention Center, just before the 6 p.m. Washington County Commission meeting.

The event was organized by seven teachers, including Jamie Freeman and Jeneé Peters.

“There has been an outcry of resistance in Washington County against this legislation,” Peters said.

“We consider it bad legislation, and still yet, Sen. (Rusty Crowe) and Rep. (Matthew) Hill voted ‘yes’ for it in committee, when parents, teachers and other community members have been unified in a strong message that we’re against this legislation. So we just felt like we needed to up the ante to let them know how serious we are.”

Freeman said the rally was organized for Monday because the full Tennessee House of Representatives is scheduled to vote on House Bill 0939, the educational savings account proposal, on Tuesday.

“We’re out giving it our all and working as hard as we can to let the public know, to let our community know (and) let (state Reps.) Matthew Hill, (Micah) Van Huss and Crowe know that public education is most important. Please vote ‘no’ against the voucher bill,” Freeman said.

Last Wednesday, during the House Finance , Ways and Means Committee, Hill amended the legislation to limit the voucher program to just four counties, Davidson, Hamilton, Knox and Shelby, counties, before voting in support of the bill.

Under the education savings account proposal, eligible students attending public schools within those four counties, which have been identified as the lowest performing schools in the state, could receive $7,300 in public funds for private schools or other educational-related expenses.

His amendment also creates a pool of grant funds for struggling public schools outside of those four counties.

“This whole voucher bill is based on TN Ready (testing) data (and) Tennessee has not got testing right in years. So they’re wanting to pass huge legislation that really defunds public schools across Tennessee based on faulty data from TN Ready. We don’t accept that,” Peters said.

To jumpstart the program, Lee wants to allocate $25 million per year for the next three years for education savings accounts, but Freeman said that is additional money that could be spent on bettering public education. He cites a finding from Gov. Bill Haslam’s BEP Task Force that found public education in Tennessee is underfunded by $500 million.

Washington County Commissioner Jodi Jones was among those who attended the rally, as did Washington County Board of Education members Mary Beth Dellinger and Annettee Buchanan.

“I just think we have such a small amount of the pie now, and I don’t want that to be shrunk even less. We don’t want to face that,” Dellinger said.

“I have not seen anyone who supports this. I’m hoping they’re listening. I know Washington and Johnson City (school boards) both have resolutions (opposing it). I’m just concerned.”

Washington County students Emily Johnson, Ian Shockley and Natalie Jones were also in attendance to show their support for public education.

“My mom is a public school teacher so that really affects my family if something happens to her job. She was really passionate about it,” said Johnson, who held a sign saying “Say no to vouchers or I’ll say no to you.”

“I’ve been following this pretty closely because I think public schools are an important public institution,” said Shockley, whose sign said “Still a bad idea. Tennesseans have rejected vouchers for seven straight years.”

Almost all the public education supporters at Monday’s rally said they were disappointed in Hill for voting in support the voucher bill.

“I voted for Matthew Hill before, but he’s lost my vote now,” Unicoi County Elementary teacher Julia Elliott said.

The full House and the Senate Finance, Ways and Means Committee are scheduled to vote on the voucher bill Tuesday.

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