Private school voucher bills have become synonymous with the Tennessee General Assembly.
For five straight years, bills to strip public funding from our local public schools to fund private school tuition have been filed. For five straight years, TEA and other public school advocates have fought back and won.
“The voucher fight has serious implications for all school districts statewide, even if they are not specifically targeted in the legislation,” said TEA President Barbara Gray. “We have seen in other states how quickly ‘pilot programs’ can become statewide programs. If vouchers were allowed in any district, it could ultimately cripple the budgets of school districts all across the state.”
Bill sponsors Sen. Brian Kelsey and Rep. Harry Brooks tried a new approach this year by targeting only Shelby County Schools. They quickly learned that while there is little appetite for any form of private school vouchers, there is a strong appetite for accountability.
“Legislators and constituents made it very clear to the bill sponsors that if these private schools want public money, they must also take the public test,” Gray said.
The insistence that private schools accepting voucher students administer the state TNReady assessment was a key to the bill’s downfall this year. Private school operators, like the Catholic Diocese, balked at the idea of being forced the use the state test to measure student performance.
“We have seen in other states how these voucher programs often lower student performance and are susceptible to fraud,” Gray said. “While TEA opposes any form of private school vouchers, regardless of the accountability measures, it is important that safeguards be put in place to protect our children and taxpayer money. The only way to measure voucher students’ performance against public school students is by administering the same state assessment.”
Despite five straight years of defeat, TEA expects the voucher fight to resume once again in 2018. Privatization advocates maintain that Tennesseans want a voucher program, but TEA research has proven otherwise.
Based on responses of more than 6,500 Tennesseans, research shows constituents back home strongly reject private school vouchers.
In the largest and most comprehensive polling data on the subject, TEA extensively surveyed rural, urban and suburban voters in all three grand divisions of the state.
Of the respondents, 59.5 percent rejected private school vouchers and only 29 percent approved, verifying what educators have known for years – private school vouchers are unwanted and unneeded in Tennessee. The two-to-one negative opinion was consistent statewide and across demographic groups.
“The voucher fight takes up so much time and energy every year that could be better spent on the issues that actually matter to our students and educators,” Gray said. “I am hopeful that as legislators continue to hear strong voucher opposition from folks back home, they will turn their attention to more important issues like reducing testing, increasing funding and supporting Tennessee’s hardworking educators.”