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Critics: Proposed Tennessee school voucher program violates separation of church and state

Tony Casey • Updated Jan 26, 2016 at 6:40 PM

Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration is touting its proposed school voucher program as giving parents more educational choice for their children.

But critics say because of the state’s preponderance of Christian private schools, those choices are actually very few.

According to the website www.privateschoolreview.com, 73 percent of Tennessee’s private schools are religiously affiliated. That leaves some teachers, administrators and parents calling proposals for a voucher system allowing tax dollars to flow from the state’s public schools to private K-12 schools a violation of the long-held principle of separation of church and state.

Locally, 80 percent of private schools subscribe to one religion. For Carter, Greene, Johnson, Sullivan and Washington counties — the only area counties with private schools — all 30 religiously affiliated schools teach Christian dogma.

Some of the largest private schools in the Tri-Cities include St. Mary’s Catholic School, Providence Academy, Ashley Academy and Tri-Cities Christian School.

If a bill currently active in the General Assembly is enacted, the voucher program would only apply if a child’s school was in the bottom 5 percent of the state in terms of achievement, as well as the student being on free or reduced-price lunch programs. Currently no public schools in Northeast Tennessee fall within the 5-percent limits of the bill.

“Yes, Americans United strongly opposes the efforts to adopt a private school voucher program in Tennessee, in part, because it would primarily fund religious schools and religious education,” said Amrita Singh, who serves as state legislative counsel for the lobbying group. “We recognize that many families find value in religious education, but religious schools and religious education must be funded by voluntary contributions, not the taxpayer. Indeed, one of the most dearly held principles of religious liberty is that government should not compel any citizen to furnish funds in support of a religion with which he or she disagrees, or even a religion with which he or she does agree.”

Singh was joined by the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s Sam Grover, a staff attorney, in pointing to examples of why they feel — religion preference aside — school voucher programs should be avoided.

“FFRF is located a mere 80 miles from Milwaukee, home to the nation’s longest-running voucher experiment,” Grover said. “And what we’ve learned from analyzing the data is that not only do voucher programs divert public money to religious institutions, they are rampant with mismanagement and fraud. Private school teachers are not held to the same standards as public school teachers and the people who run voucher schools are not nearly as accountable to the state as public schools.”

State Sen. Rusty Crowe has firmly stood in opposition to Haslam’s voucher program, which, to this point, has progressed out of subcommittee.

The Republican says it isn’t because of its potential connection to Christian education, but because Carter, Unicoi and Washington counties, and their school boards, have all passed resolutions against school vouchers. He says he’s going to represent his constituents on the state level that way.

“I do think choice is a good thing, too, if done properly,” Crowe said, going on to say he was not opposed in theory to the program Haslam’s laying out. “I’ve always been very supportive of our private Christian schools. I don’t have a problem with them at all.”

Crowe understands these private schools to have the same requirements as all the public schools and said the education offered there is “fantastic,” but it doesn’t apply to the schools in his district because they’re such high-achieving public schools.

Private school students across the state do not have to take the same standardized tests as their public school counterparts, and as director of schools for Washington County Ron Dykes recently said in a Press article, the teachers at these private institutions don’t follow the same licensing as those teaching in public schools.

Jim Wogan, a spokesperson for the Diocese of Knoxville, which oversees St. Mary’s, said the Catholic organization has always been supported school voucher programs like Haslam’s because it could bring in new students who might have had financial issues.

“We're behind it,” Wogan said. “We see it as an opportunity for parents to select schools they see as something that might be beneficial for their children and for their futures. This hasn't changed at all.”

For that, Wogan and the diocese are proponents of the “National School Choice Week” taking place this week. The goal of the state-and-nationwide push is to “shine a positive spotlight on effective education options for children, including traditional public schools, public charter schools, magnet schools, private schools, online homeschooling,” according to a press release from the governor’s office.

Johnson City’s Ashley Academy is the exception to the list of religion-linked schools.

Educating students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade, Ashley Academy is a non-religious school that seeks to prepare  students for the world through somewhat alternative means of teaching. Ramona Harr, the school’s headmaster, said students are taught to be education investigators, more focused on how to think rather than what to think.

Harr is very interested in the possibility that school vouchers might become available across the state and more students could attend Ashley Academy, which currently has 82 students.

“It’s an opportunity for choice,” Harr said. “We would be very interested in this because we have many families who don’t have the opportunity due to financial issues.”

Ashley Academy emphasizes investigative science, hands-on lessons, Spanish at an early age, arts and the importance of recess and the times when “children can be children for an hour a day,” Harr said. 

Ashley Academy operates mostly on tuition and a little bit of fundraising, so the headmaster hopes to see this voucher program come to fruition.

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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