Governor Lee fails in supporting public education

Published 10:53 am Friday, December 8, 2023

BY SETH CAMPBELL
There’s no easy way to highlight the trouble our state is in. We’ve now arrived at a point where politicians in Nashville are hijacking Tennessee schools and disassembling the framework of our education system.
This past week, Governor Bill Lee, flanked by a myriad of politicians, announced an expansion to the school voucher program that would allow Tennessee parents to opt in for a private school scholarship worth $7,075. It’s a pretty sweet deal for the few people that can benefit from such a program. For the rest of Tennessee, including anyone invested in public schools, the plan is yet another swipe from politicians to undercut public education in our state.
On average, the Tennessee state government funds around $5,500 of each child’s education with local governments covering the rest of the cost. It’s important to note that Tennessee is ranked in the bottom 10 states for per-pupil spending. Politicians willing to funnel massive amounts of public money to private schools with extremely limited oversight is beyond me. It simply makes no sense to an ordinary Tennessean.
Moreover, the $7,075 voucher handout will not cover the cost for many private schools, as tuition regularly exceeds $10,000. For many economically strapped Tennesseans, finding an additional few thousand dollars to meet private school tuition isn’t feasible. They’re worried about covering the next month’s power bill and putting a meal on the dinner table.
In reality, this $7,075 is a large coupon to help families who can already afford the luxury of a private education.
The half-cooked bill from Governor Lee seems to be lacking in any substantial detail. Perhaps the lack of particulars concerning this bill is on purpose, as the politicians pushing the voucher program realize that Tennesseans continue to largely support their public schools.
Operating under purposeful hazy conditions would certainly help the Tennessee legislators in their mission of weakening public education. The last time vouchers were at the forefront of our legislative body, only a few short years ago, the Tennessee State Capitol devolved into a disorganized mess.
Then-Speaker Glen Casada didn’t have the votes to pass Governor Lee’s plan to expand vouchers to only our largest cities. When it became obvious that the votes weren’t there, the leading politicians reverted to arm-twisting and well-documented bribery. The bill may have passed by a single vote, but the eventual law was a wounded duck from the beginning.
While politicians continue to concoct ploys in order alter educational plans in the state, schools continue the important work of educating students. Principals, teachers, assistants and other essential staff members are our family, neighbors, fellow churchgoers and key members of our town and our lives. When politicians actively undercut public education, they are devaluing these important people that have played a paramount role in our society.
I’m doubtful that Governor Lee and his team are listening, but Tennesseans are speaking out across the state. School leaders in Anderson, Cheatam, Putnam, Williamson and Wilson Counties were all quick to speak out against the voucher handout and highlight the slight that public schools are receiving. More community leaders in Tennessee towns such as Alamo, Columbia, Greenville and Paris have also questioned the motives behind this bill.
All these varying Tennessee locations represent different geographical, political and economic factors. Even with all the differences, they all agree that Governor Lee raiding the education system to provide a healthy kickback for private schools is egregious.
Earlier this year, Tennessee experienced an onslaught of brand-new and unproven charter schools attempting to open across the state. Only a few weeks ago, Tennessee politicians openly flirted with rejecting federal money that helps our schools operate and run smoothly. And now Governor Lee is attempting to send a large sum of taxpayer funds to private schools across the state.
If any public funding is to be given to private schools through vouchers, the private schools must follow the same standards as our public institutions. They must offer full and robust programs for English-Language Learners and Special Education. They must follow the state curriculum and be held accountable for each specific standard. And private schools must also require the same teacher certification and training as public schools.
Ultimately, if Governor Lee wishes to bestow tax revenue for private schools, he must hold these schools to the same high standard that public schools are held to on a daily basis. The overarching problem is that Governor Lee will not hold private schools accountable, and neither will the politicians flanking the governor and supporting this poorly crafted plan.
Governor Lee and his lack of leadership continues to fail Tennessee. Let’s hope he corrects himself before he fails education in our state.
(Seth James is an educator from Columbia, Tn. This article first appeared in Main Street Nashville.)

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