Lee’s school voucher expansion plan draws concerns, strong opposition

Published 1:45 pm Tuesday, December 12, 2023

By Buzz Trexler
Star Correspondent
Educators, public officials, and others across the state are speaking out against Gov. Bill Lee’s proposed statewide school choice voucher program, known as the Education Freedom Scholarship Act, saying it will rob public schools of much-needed funding.

One East Tennessee director of schools calls it “Welfare for the Wealthy.”

On Nov. 28, Lee proposed a new statewide school choice program that would provide 20,000 students up to $7,075 each to attend private or home schools, with a plan to expand to universal eligibility in 2025. The current program, Tennessee Education Savings Account Act, was passed in 2019 and was restricted to Shelby and Davidson counties, but this year was expanded by the General Assembly to include Hamilton County. Knox County was also slated for inclusion in the most recent expansion but was removed from the bill.

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When asked his opinion on the governor’s expansion plan, State Rep. John Holsclaw, a Republican who represents Unicoi and part of Carter County, including Elizabethton, wrote in an email, “I’m definitely not in favor of the new voucher program that the governor is proposing. I know and understand that this will pull much-needed funding from our public school systems which we can’t afford to take out because every dollar is needed to operate effectively.

“When money is taken from your public schools it will affect special programs and will eventually affect the number of qualified teachers in the classroom,” Holsclaw said. “In East Tennessee, we rely heavily on our public schools to provide the much-needed education for our children. So we must strongly oppose this legislation from the governor.

“I will continue to fight for our teachers and public school systems for East Tennessee,” he said.

State Sen. Rusty Crowe, a Republican who represents Carter, Johnson, and Washington counties, including Johnson City, and serves on the Senate Education Committee, said Monday, “there has been very little discussion among senators about this proposal at this point.”

“We haven’t seen a bill filed as yet, so I will be talking with all my school boards who are elected by the people I serve in Carter, Washington, and Johnson counties,” Crowe said in response to a request from The Star. “At this point, board members I have spoken to with the Johnson City school board are against this proposal; however, I do have several other boards to listen to in the coming weeks.”

Crowe said the main concerns he has heard thus far include:

— state money being diverted to private schools and concerns the funds “might go to high-income families” who can already afford private schools, and not just low-income families;

— a belief that the state should be focusing on using taxpayer funds to improve failing schools; and

— that the governor’s proposal is in reaction to poor educational outcomes in areas like Memphis, Shelby County, and others across the state.

Crowe also noted some private schools may not want public funding. “It comes with strings attached, especially religious schools,” he said.

“The governor is concerned that parents whose children are in poor educational settings should have a choice and opportunity to give their students a better situation and chance educationally, so choice and opportunity are the goals of the governor’s bill,” Crowe said. “I will keep an open mind as I listen to those I serve.”

Crowe noted that a formal bill has not yet been filed and expects whatever is filed before the General Assembly reconvenes on Jan. 9 will likely be amended. “So, I would urge those we serve to let us know how they feel as this moves through the committees in the House and Senate,” he said.

State Rep. Timothy Hill, a Republican representing Johnson County and parts of Carter, Hawkins, and Sullivan counties, including Blountville, echoed a similar sentiment, stating, “I am waiting to see what the final language of the legislation is and seeking input from my constituents before making a decision on the Governor’s proposal.”

However, Hill did not provide further details or additional statements regarding the matter.

VANHUSS OPPOSES PLAN

When asked his opinion on the governor’s expansion plan, Elizabethton Director of Schools Richard VanHuss wrote in an email that he was opposed to the plan. “Based on the new student-based funding formula, every student that leaves our system reduces our state funding,” he said. “With a reduction in funding comes a reduction in services, programs, and/or staffing in our schools. This is not beneficial for our students or our community.”

What has been beneficial, VanHuss said, is publicly funded education.

“I am a product of public education and am thankful for the opportunities that education afforded me. I am proud of the education my children received in public schools,” VanHuss said. “Additionally, after a 27-year career in education, I have seen the positive impact public education has had on our community. We educate every child that comes through our doors. We have hard-working and dedicated educators that pour their heart and soul into each of their students. This act will hurt our ability to serve the students in our community. No one in public education is fearful of competition. Unless we are evaluated on a level playing field, it is unfair to compare results. Other than the medical field, education is the most regulated field in our country. We work every day to meet the demands of all our stakeholders. Without a commitment to hold all groups to the same accountability structure, it is unfair to allow public funds to be used in this way.”

VanHuss said he has not had an opportunity to talk with legislators regarding Lee’s proposal but plans to do so before the next legislative session and seems optimistic. “We are blessed to have local legislators that value public education and understand how important it is to our local economy,” he said.

Elizabethton Board of Education Chairman Eddie Pless said he could not speak as a board member at this point, but offered his opinion as someone who is entering his 40th year in public education and is “a product of it as well.”

“Obviously, I have concerns,” Pless said by phone. “My thoughts are I think public education in Tennessee has done a tremendous job, held to very rigorous standards, and just really feel like we do a great job with the funding that we have. We provide really critical opportunities for our students – not only academically but extracurricular-wise that are so vital, and we take every student that comes. In other words, we can’t be selective. We don’t want to be selective.”

Neither Carter County Director of Schools Brandon Carpenter, nor Carter County Board of Education Chairman Kelly Crain responded to requests for comment.

OPPOSITION ELSEWHERE

Greeneville Director of Schools Steve Starnes told The Greeneville Sun earlier this month, “The amount of private school tuition is going to be more than the actual voucher, not including the cost of transportation, uniforms, and other associated costs. This won’t benefit low-income families; it will become a subsidy for the affluent – ‘Welfare for the Wealthy.’”

On Dec. 6, the Greeneville Board of Education unanimously adopted a resolution opposing Lee’s proposal. According to The Greeneville Sun, the city school board officially opposed “any legislation or other similar effort to create a universal voucher program in Tennessee that would allow public tax dollars to be diverted to private schools or organizations through vouchers.”

Knox County educator and Tennessee Education Association President Tanya T. Coats said on the TEA’s website, “The administration continues to miss the point. The issue is using public taxpayer dollars to fund private education. If the state has $7,000 for every student who wants to attend a private school, why not invest $7,000 more per student in our public schools? This would get Tennessee out of the bottom 10 nationally in state investment per-student. That money could provide counselors, nurses, and social workers. That money could put an end to our educators working two and three jobs to make ends meet. That money could ensure all students have access to STEM and related arts programs.

“Redirecting state dollars to private school vouchers will hurt public education and put our great public schools at risk of closure,” she said. “The only choices this program would provide are the choices for private schools to profit off Tennessee taxpayers and cherry-pick the students they want to educate.”

Following Lee’s announcement, Knox County school board member Jennifer Owen told The Tennessean, “We’re using public funds to fund private schools. It’s definitely crossing the line between church and state. … Taxpayers want their taxes to go to public services, not to be funneled into private institutions they have no oversight on.”

On Monday, Jimmie Garland, vice president of Tennessee state NAACP, wrote in a guest column for The Tennessean, “Governor Lee’s announcement promotes siphoning public resources from public school system students and providing that funding to private schools, privately owned charter schools and parents who are homeschooling their children. … The NAACP stands firm in opposition to any school mechanisms that threaten and deplete resources for public schools. Realizing the importance of the NAACP’s advocacy of giving voice to the voiceless. We serve as the voice for the masses of disenfranchised students.”

Editor’s Note: State Rep. Timothy Hill responded to the questions after the press deadline for print. As a result, his quote has been added to the online version of the story.