In January’s State of the State speech, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam outlined a proposal to let poor students assigned to low-performing public schools attend private schools using tax dollars.
State Sen. Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown), who sponsored similar legislation in 2011, expects his colleagues will pass it.
“Tennessee in recent years has tackled virtually every other education reform out there, from performance-based teacher evaluations to tenure reform to universal eligibility for charter schools,” Kelsey said. “Opportunity scholarships are the last major piece of the education reform puzzle.”
More Information, Please
In 2011, the state Senate passed Kelsey’s vouchers bill, but House members wanted further investigation. The findings of a 2012 task force Haslam commissioned have increased legislative support for the idea.
Tennessee lawmakers are discussing how to focus education on what is best for children, rather than “what is best for the adults in a bureaucracy,” Kelsey said. Vouchers “provide low-income children with the same opportunities that higher income children already have to receive the quality education that they deserve. We know that opportunity scholarships increase graduation rates dramatically and have zero negative effect on public schools.”
“We feel inclined to believe that some type of voucher bill will pass this year,” said Mandy Rough, executive director of the Memphis Opportunity Scholarship Trust (MOST), which gives students private scholarships to attend their school of choice.
Marilyn Johnson said the day she learned about MOST nine years ago was life-changing for her son Marshall, who goes to St. George’s Independent School. Another MOST parent, who asked to remain anonymous because she teaches in a public school, lauded MOST for helping her daughter flourish.
“Our daughter is thriving in this new environment, and even her teacher acknowledges how she is excelling both academically and socially,” she said. “Within a half a year’s time, she has grown tremendously in math and reading and is performing above grade level.”
Taxpayers spend approximately $10,000 for each urban Tennessee student, Kelsey noted.
“We have got to start worrying more about whether our students are learning than where they are learning,” he said.
Parent, Voter Support
A group of parents organized to oppose vouchers in Tennessee and received broad media attention, but polls indicate they don’t represent most voters or legislators.
Standing Together 4 Strong Community Schools claims private education will reduce parents’ role while threatening schools’ autonomy.
“You’re going to have a group of people who are philosophically opposed to [vouchers] and will just never come to terms with it,” said John Reed, a Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice spokesman. “Conveniently, the way school choice works, these people don’t have to use it. Of course, research shows that most people who choose school choice tend to benefit. School choice measures, like vouchers, demonstrably improve public schools.”
A recent statewide poll found a solid majority of voters support vouchers. Of 606 Tennessee voters Friedman surveyed last spring, 59 percent favored vouchers. Among parents, the poll found seven out of ten favored vouchers. People who strongly favored vouchers outnumbered those strongly opposed by 27 percentage points.
Parents Value Choice
The poll also asked participants to give reasons for their responses.
“By far, the most common reason was that vouchers afforded choice, flexibility, and freedom. Those kinds of terms really resonated as reasons for supporting vouchers,” said Paul DiPerna, Friedman’s research director. “There were other, less frequently offered impressions, such as [a voucher] helps the less fortunate, provides better quality of education.… There were also negative [concerns about] abuse or fraud, [and] hurting the public schools, but they were in a distinct minority compared to those who responded positively.”
Traditional public schools exclude parents from real decisions over their children’s educations such as what to teach, where to attend school, and how much to pay for it, Reed said.
Parents have begun to tell legislators they want school choice, said Brent Easley, Tennessee state director for StudentsFirst, a national school choice advocacy group.
“The public’s support is at our back,” he said. “We have thousands of members in our organization, and our numbers are growing in Tennessee.”
Image by Attila Husejnow.