Gov. Lee’s voucher proposal raises lots of questions

Published 8:25 am Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee’s controversial school voucher program would provide parents up to $7,300 to leave a district with failing schools. In essence, the bill would provide tuition for students to attend private school, or at least part of the price.
Education savings accounts, a voucher-style program, provide public money for parents to send their children to private school or cover other education-related expenses. It is one of the most controversial proposals currently working through the Tennessee General Assembly.
The legislation says that families eligible for the program would be required to make less than double the federal guidelines to qualify for free lunch. That’s about $54,000 annually for a family of three or $65,000 annually for a family of four.
Lee’s proposal has been amended heavily and comes with plenty of questions.
Civil rights groups, teachers associations, superintendents and school boards have come out against the plan.
Critics have said the program could leave the state open to a lawsuit and funnels money away from public schools.
Private schools can be a viable alternative to public schools for some students. And, some of the state’s top educators see mixing private schools with public funds as a problem. One of the overriding concerns with private schools has been oversight of curriculum, grading and other classroom issues.
The concerns of late have been expanded from educational oversight to financial oversight. It is state money in private hands.
This is not the first time a Tennessee governor has tried to get vouches placed into schools.
Former Gov. Bill Haslam lobbied for the legislation in 2016, but it got pulled mid-section due to the low amount of votes. Each time the idea was brought to light, it sputtered and eventually scrapped.
Critics have said public funding should not focus on private school’s coffers and divert away from underfunded districts.
Lee’s proposal would only serve a small percentage of Tennessee students, which may be a disservice to public schools.
For example, take Carter County schools which face a declining enrollment and less funding. The voucher program proposed by the governor would only steal more much-needed funding from an already under-funded public school system.
Gov. Lee said he will pay for the program out of his budget and any money local school districts will lose will be reimbursed. But school districts get funded based on their daily attendance and critics say ESAs will shrink funding to public schools just when the state should be increasing it.
Lee has been promoting his program for months. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos was in Nashville recently and said she supported it. For public school teachers and administrators that’s a dubious endorsement. DeVos is a big charter school supporter.
For now,the Tennessee General Assembly is at odds over what do with Gov. Bill Lee’s controversial school voucher program.
Senate and House committees have made significant changes to the bill. The amendments don’t jibe on key points and will need to be hashed out if the bill is ever to become a law.
As the measure continues to move through the legislature, it’s clear the program, if passed, could look different than the proposal Lee introduced.
There are concerns about the long-term fiscal effects of the program.
Lee’s plan would set aside $75 million over the next three years to begin the program, and by 2024, the plan could cost taxpayers as much as $125 million.
Many are worried the proposal could impact public school funding.
Legislators and Lee officials have said the state would still “fully fund” public schools by backfilling funding to districts.
What we do know is that Carter County schools cannot afford to lose more funding or students, and we see that if the governor’s plan passes. What should happen is that the state double down on its efforts and dollars to fix public schools. It can be done with a little help from the state and we encourage our local lawmakers before they endorse the governor’s proposals to see the long-term effect it may have on schools systems like Carter, Unicoi, and Johnson counties.

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