School Vouchers, More Questions Than Answers

Guest Editorial by David Seal

I may be one of the few public school teachers that is not fundamentally opposed to school vouchers. In some states, giving public tax dollars to private institutions may be the best choice for providing a good education for students that are hurting from failing schools, especially if the voucher system is well planned and executed, and if elected officials admit that a departure is being made from public education. Let’s be honest here; in Tennessee, you are seeing the beginning of the end of public schools as we know them. As conservative columnist Frank Cagle said recently, “the camel’s nose is in the tent”. Vouchers have entered the realm of education as a “pilot” program; and one amendment can broaden the program to the rest of the state, and in walks the camel. For some legislators, school vouchers have been an ideological goal for decades.

A voucher system is not the best choice for Tennessee. Tennesseans are proud of their public schools and expect the state government to be supportive of teachers and students. We saw this expressed in numerous county and municipal resolutions across the state during the legislative session; you may see a more grass roots version expressed by voters in the next election. The message will be that Tennessee legislators made the wrong decision on vouchers.

Analyzing problems with troubled schools, eliminating cumbersome regulations, taking responsibility for schools at the local level, and making difficult but necessary adjustments is the way to repair failing schools. In part, state government has had a hand in the chronic destruction of public schools by delegating endless regulation on schools via the state Department of Education (DOE), imposing excessive testing requirements for students, and delegating oversight to state bureaucrats. Charter and private schools are free of such bureaucratic regulation and thrive financially and academically. You would think that public officials, smart enough to get elected to state office, would see this. Instead, for years, they have depended on the state Department of Education to police failing schools. The department’s primary function is to set broad guidelines and standards based on legislative intent, and to administrate appropriations, not to analyze and fix local problems. Fixing local school problems is a local issue.

Students and communities have the primary responsibility for improving their schools. In some geographic areas, the failing school situation may be unsolvable unless the community itself changes. The complex set of problems that cause failing schools may be so deeply rooted in poverty, illicit drug abuse, violence, crime, language barriers, student apathy, and other factors that fixing the community may be primary to the secondary issue of repairing failing schools. The state Department of Education cannot regulate, test, or standardize schools out of failure; and the legislature cannot fix school performance problems by doling out $7300 debit cards to parents in the form of Education Savings Accounts (ESA). Too many states have already learned that monitoring thousands of student debit accounts is virtually impossible; fraud is inherent in the voucher system. So how much money will be wasted? Who will benefit; and who will be penalized? The students most likely to benefit from the ESA voucher system are those who have the academic credentials to be accepted by a private school, using the $7300 debit as a tuition discount. The students that remain in the failing schools are likely to be the ones with the highest risk factors and the least likely to benefit from vouchers. Will our new education policy really make a difference for students in failing schools?

The Fiscal Analysis, prepared by the Tennessee General Assembly Fiscal Review Committee is a mixed bag of financial assumptions that show an increase in local education cost and a nearly $30 million per year increase in state expenditures. The administration budget shows a $25 million increase in reoccurring appropriations for ESA accounts, $5 million short of fully funding the voucher system. Who pays the cost difference? My guess is that local schools will be expected to give up BEP funding to supplement the cost of vouchers in failing schools that are far removed from the 93 counties not currently eligible for voucher funding. The Fiscal Note describes a “shift” in BEP funding and the prospect of “local expenditures” increasing by “unknown amounts”. The question is, how much will the voucher program subtract from schools outside the voucher system?

The voucher system in Tennessee reminds me of the Georgia prison reforms of the late 1960’s under then Governor Lester Maddox, who was subject to harsh criticism for the deplorable conditions in the state prison system. He was quoted as saying “conditions in the prisons will not improve until we get a better class of prisoner“. Students and local communities have a vital role to play in the quality of their schools. So why do legislators want to “shift” resources among public schools to compensate for distant school failures? The answer is a varied one.

Observers of the legislature point to the influence of special interest, political ideology, a hatred for the teacher’s union, and outright incentives to motivate legislators to vote for school vouchers against the wishes of their local governing boards and constituents. Legislators are quick to point out that amendments were made in the legislative process that “protect” their district from the effects of the legislation. This begs the question; why should local schools be protected from something that is to be imposed on other communities? The voucher bill is a “Public Chapter” applicable statewide, but sagaciously limited to 6 “priority schools” in two counties. This creates a set of constitutional questions that may have to be decided by the courts at taxpayer expense.

The voucher bill was amended 13 times by the House, 5 times by the Senate, and finally re-written by a conference committee with a set of provisions specifically aimed at exempting certain counties. The final vote in the House was tied at one point; after a 42 minute delay in taking the vote, some legislators changed their vote due to last minute “persuasion”. A final vote was taken and school vouchers passed. Now we head down a slippery slope of unknowns for public education. If you want to see what it took for state legislators to change their vote to approve vouchers, I would look at who got local grant awards, road projects, and committee chair appointments.

Submitted by David Seal David is a long time educator in Jefferson County, as well as a recognized artist and local businessman. He has also served Jefferson County as a County Commissioner and is a lobbyist for the people on issues such as eminent domain and broadband accessibility on the state level.