Tennessee Education Association

Great Public Schools for All Students


“Choice” can be a good thing, but not with ESAs, charters

Ernest Agyemang Yeboah, a writer and teacher from Ghana, said, “Don’t just find faults; be the solution to the problems you see!”

That’s why TEA isn’t just pointing out the flaws in legislation currently being considered by Tennessee lawmakers: we are offering a better solution.

The education buzzword in the General Assembly this year is “choice,” and more than one bill has been filed under the guise of offering educational choice.

The administration’s proposed charter expansion bill (HB940/SB796) creates a statewide commission that can overturn any local school board’s decision to deny a charter school application. That’s right—charter schools could now open anywhere in the state, regardless of whether a county wants them or not. This is problematic not only because it infringes on local control, but also because opening a charter school does not mean closing a public school. Instead, the public school is drained of desperately-needed resources. Finally, a significant percentage of charter schools do not demonstrate improvements in academic achievement, while innovative public schools using similar funding show significant gains for students.

HB939/SB795, the voucher bill (don’t be fooled by the term “education savings account”), is even more flawed. Even if we could ignore the fact that research shows voucher students fall behind their peers when going to private schools or homeschooling (and I can’t ignore it…I’m an English teacher), vouchers just don’t make sense financially. First, ESAs in other states have experienced a significant amount of fraud and abuse of taxpayers’ dollars. Eligibility for the ESA program initially is limited to counties with at least three schools in the bottom 10 percent, but students don’t have to attend a school in the bottom 10 percent. Moreover, families are eligible at 200 percent of the federal poverty guidelines. That’s right…a two-parent family with two children making more than $90,000 will get taxpayer funding to subsidize private school tuition. Selling the ESA proposal as a way to save our poor children is completely disingenuous. The estimated cost is more than $70 million in local dollars after three years of the program. The result? Taxes will increase and/or public schools that serve low-income students will lose critical funding.
Now let’s talk about meaningful, effective choice. 

TEA supports HB1330/SB1058, a bill that highlights the positive impact community schools have on student achievement. We know that the lowest-performing schools in the state are almost always the schools with the most concentrated poverty, the highest rates of adverse childhood experiences, and, often, the most student mobility. Only by addressing these issues first can we seek to create a place where students can thrive, and the research shows community schools are a means to do just that. Each community school plan is tailored to meet the unique needs of that student body and the broader community, and since parent and community support are one of the vital pillars of a successful community school, parents have direct input into the creation of a successful academic experience for their children. 

I’ve heard it said that we should “bloom where [we’re] planted.” Tennesseans have an obligation to make sure that the educational soil is fertile and that students have the resources they need to do just that. 

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