Legislative Update on Education Bills

By Sally Absher

With the 109th General Assembly well underway, there is good, bad, and ugly with regard to education bills.

First the good: HB0036 (Dunn)/SB0285 (Briggs) removes the requirement that the local education authority (LEA) must include student scores in a TCAP subject area as part of the student’s grade in that subject. This bill passed out of the Education instruction and Programs subcommittee last week.  HB0983 (Hill)/SB0671 (Nicely) prohibits standardized tests for K-2. This bill was rolled to March 25.

On the bad and ugly list, some of the most controversial bills under consideration are HB1049 (Dunn)/ SB0999 (Gardenhire), and HB0210 (Brooks)/SB0122 (Kelsey), which would enact the “Tennessee Choice and Opportunity Scholarship Act” (Vouchers). Dunn’s bill was rolled to tomorrow (3/17); the senate versions of both bills have been referred to the senate finance committee.

It’s bad enough to be a follower, and not a leader. But why, when it comes to education, is Tennessee continuing to follow Louisiana – one of the worst examples in the country? We’re even copying the names of their lackluster reforms.

Vouchers, under Louisiana’s “Opportunity Scholarship Program” (sound familiar?) were piloted in New Orleans in 2008 and offered statewide in 2012-2013. Mercedes Schneider, Louisiana native, education researcher, and author, wrote about Louisiana’s voucher program on her blog (deutsch29.wordpress.com).

Louisiana’s opportunity scholarship program has had a history of problems, from lack of adequate due diligence in accepting schools into the voucher program to funding and performance issues.

Louisiana’s Minimum Foundation Program (MFP) money earmarked for public schools was used to pay private schools to educate voucher students (which “choked” public schools by diverting funding). But rather than directly funding vouchers, the Louisiana State Superintendent John White tried to convince state school board to “launder” the MFP money by first accepting it and then turning it over to voucher schools.

The School board refused, and the Louisiana Supreme Court ruled in 2013 that MFP money could not be used to fund the voucher program. So the following year, White and Governor Jindal had to fund 8,000 vouchers via a line item in the Louisiana state budget. Take note, Tennessee.

Public interest in utilizing Louisiana’s Opportunity Scholarships just wasn’t there. By the fall of 2013, less than 14,000 of the 380,000 eligible students applied for vouchers, and 9,100 seats were presumably filled. In reality, only 7,400 used their vouchers.

More importantly, there is the issue of not enough private schools from which to “choose.” The private schools are the only entity with “choice” in this matter. Schneider says, “It seems that established private schools for the most part are “choosing” to not allow public school students, with their public school money and the state-connected, White-puppeted strings that come along, to enter their halls.”

And, with the lack of due diligence in the beginning, many schools that were accepted into the voucher program in 2012-2013 did not continue into 2013-14 because they had “failed.” In 2013, only 40 percent of grades 3 through 8 voucher students scored at or above the average on the statewide assessment, compared to a state average of 69 percent. By 2014, the percentage did rise to 45 for voucher students, still well below the 69 percent state average.

Louisiana is not alone. Similar lackluster results in both achievement and failure to narrow the achievement gap have been reported from the 13 states (and D.C.) with state voucher programs. In 2011, the Center on Education Policy (CEP) published a report entitled “Keeping informed about School Vouchers: A Review of Major Developments and Research.” The report concludes that in spite of much of the recent voucher research having been conducted or sponsored by pro-voucher organizations, “vouchers have had no clear positive effect on student academic achievement, and mixed outcomes for students overall. “

It is an “inconvenient truth” that taxpayers across the US will soon be spending $1 Billion a year to help families pay private school tuition, and there is little evidence that the investment yields academic gains. (Politico 10/6/13).

Even if one accepts the false myth of “failing schools,” when the problem is generational poverty and societal norms that have destroyed the family and communities, here are a few more inconvenient truths about vouchers, thanks to Tennessee Reclaiming Educational Excellence (TREE):

– Voucher schools are not required to have the same academic standards as public schools, or abide by open records laws, eliminating accountability for tax dollars.

 

– Many kids in poverty still won’t be able to participate, as only tuition is paid – not transportation, uniforms, textbooks, or required reading.

 

– Voucher schools aren’t required to accept special needs, English language learners, and other vulnerable students.

 

– Schools can close or withdraw from the program on a whim, breeding instability among our students.

Districts in Tennessee need to keep what public tax dollars they have in the public schools. Everyone complains that Tennessee schools are near the bottom in per-student funding. Why would you further dilute those limited resources by redistributing them to private schools?

It is embarrassing that both voucher bills are sponsored by members of the Knox County delegation in Nashville, and yet, just two weeks ago the Knox County School Board passed a nearly unanimous resolution (only Doug Harris voted no) in opposition to vouchers.

 

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