Voucher System Would Democratize Tennessee Schools

Published November 6, 2011

School boards in Tennessee’s largest districts have begun a furious public relations campaign to thwart attempts at democratizing education by offering school vouchers to some of the state’s poorest families in Nashville, Chattanooga, Knoxville and Memphis.

In Tennessee as elsewhere, families are assigned to schools by ZIP code. No other government service operates this way. Families for whom the local public school isn’t working must either move to another, usually more expensive, neighborhood or have large amounts of disposable income to pay both property taxes for public schools and tuition to send their children elsewhere. These two options, frustrating enough for middle-income families, aren’t available to the poor at all.

The only people this system benefits are those who stand to gain from social immobility and centralized control over education: school boards, local public schools and teachers unions. Thus, it’s no surprise these groups oppose vouchers.

The proposed voucher program is stacked in favor of public schools. The vouchers would be worth only half the tax dollars public schools get to educate students, leaving private schools at a severe financial disadvantage. Private schools, however, have for decades managed to cultivate better academic and social results than public schools at much less cost.

Opponents argue private schools don’t meet the same academic reporting requirements as public schools and thus could squander taxpayer dollars. Lawmakers should, indeed, look at successful voucher programs in Wisconsin and Indiana to consider how to hold private schools accountable for public money without destroying them with overregulation.

But private schools already have demonstrated they get better results with less money, by being accountable to their shareholders: parents. If parents don’t like the education and school environment, they can enroll their children elsewhere.

Not so in public schools, where years of reports of dismal academic achievement haven’t led to improvement. In the four Tennessee school districts where students would get vouchers, one in five students does not graduate from high school. At most, half the students in any grade and any subject rate “proficient” on state tests, on average, and this has been true for years. And comparing Tennessee achievement tests with the independent National Assessment of Educational Progress, the measure of “proficiency” actually ranks “below basic.”

It’s hard to imagine taxpayers really want to continue funding expensive public schools when they could get better results for less money.

The voices of the low-income families who would be helped aren’t being heard, however, as school boards and their allies loudly insist public money shouldn’t go to private schools. But if the public is going to fund education, it has the right to get the best possible return on that spending.

Just as parents don’t owe these schools their children, taxpayers don’t owe school employees wages they’re not earning. A voucher program would give poor families choices previously available only to the rich and the middle class, and it would require all schools to earn their funding and their students.

Joy Pullmann ([email protected]) is managing editor of School Reform News and an education research fellow at The Heartland Institute, a free-market policy advocacy center based in Chicago.