The Latest on the Voucher Bill

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At the House Finance Subcommittee meeting last week, several important questions were asked of the chairman and the sponsor of the voucher bill. Sadly, neither of the representatives had answers to many of them.

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An amendment that would allow children in the bottom 10% of school districts to accept vouchers was presented, but neither the sponsor nor the chairman knew which districts were actually in the bottom 10%. Despite the lack of basic information and input from representatives whose districts would be affected by this amendment, the committee approved it.

One of the representatives asked a question on the eligibility of special needs students. The answer: “Yes, if the needed services are currently provided by the school.” What wasn’t stated is the fact that special needs students must meet all academic and other entrance requirements and, if admitted, must waive all rights to any needed services not already in place at the school. (Most private schools do not provide special education services for their students.)

When asked about the needs of the voucher users who live in poverty, the sponsor was not sure if they would be provided a meal, nor could he guarantee a student could receive necessary medical care administered by a licensed health care professional.

When questioned about the potential effects that an unfunded, state-mandated voucher program could have on funding for neighborhood, zoned schools, the sponsor stated that a price could not be placed on getting a child “trapped in a failing school into and atmosphere that was better for him.” A similar answer was given by Commissioner Huffman last year when he stated that he supported vouchers because he believed they provide “a higher level of parent satisfaction,” yet he said nothing about the fact that they do not consistently improve achievement.

The bill’s sponsor put forth the “lifeboat” theory of vouchers when he said that the state wants to help the ones they can. But it was followed by a rare moment of candor when the sponsor conceded that parents and students that actively choose options such as vouchers have “skin in the game” and “create a different atmosphere.”

So let’s run down who is eligible to get in the voucher lifeboat. You must:

– attend a school in the bottom 10% based on test scores.
– live near, at, or below the poverty level. Unfortunately you can’t be so poor that you don’t have a car to get you to the private school since no transportation is provided.
– meet admission requirements and waive all rights to any support, even if you require special education services or are an English Language Learner.
– have parents who have the ability and motivation to navigate the voucher and private school applications. Our state leaders only want our engaged families who “create a different atmosphere” to use our education tax dollars at private schools.

It is apparent that voucher “lifeboats” are open to those able-bodied go-getters who don’t require support. Our state is contemplating taking 16 million of our state and local tax dollars to put 5,000 kids in private school “lifeboats” while leaving the other 967,600 public students to make do with scraps.

State education leaders are claiming that Common Core, high-stakes standardized tests, and a teacher accountability system that ties test scores to teacher performance are what increased our student achievement on NAEP. Currently you will find none of these things in the large majority of private schools. An amendment was added to the bill last year that requires private schools that take vouchers to administer Common Core testing or a “nationally recognized” test that is approved by the state board of education (BOE). Because the assessments used by voucher-participating schools must be approved by the BOE, the private schools that participate in the voucher program will have to give control of their assessments and standards to the state government. Considering that there are some very strong supporters of Common Core on the state BOE, it would be no surprise if they chose to deny the use of any test other than PARCC, thereby forcing a state/federal mandate into private institutions.

In summary, here are some questions we would like answers to: Why would Tennessee implement a voucher program when findings from other states indicate that voucher students generally do worse on achievement tests than children who do not take vouchers? Why would the state direct tax dollars to private schools that do not use the touted TEAM model of teacher evaluation, thereby giving money to schools who cannot “guarantee” that they have highly-qualified teachers? (Wouldn’t that be akin to putting our children into lifeboats with giant holes in them?) Why would we force private institutions to adhere to state and federal government policies (e.g., PARCC)? Why would we support a program that clearly would not meet the needs of our most vulnerable children? Why should public school parent satisfaction trump achievement? And last, but not least, why should our hard-earned tax money be used to pay for such a clearly unfair and unsuccessful program?

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