As Vouchers in Tennessee Breeze Towards Reality, Here Are 5 Things You Need to Know

The prospect of vouchers has floated around these parts for years, but this week we see real progress taking shape at the Tennessee legislature. These government funded dollars will serve as tuition payments for families who want to send their children to a private school of choice.  In Tennessee, vouchers enjoy massive support from the GOP-led legislature (note the 10 Republican-sponsored voucher bills), though the crowd is a unique mix of Republicans and education reform-leaning Democrats.

There is little evidence proving vouchers’ effectiveness at lifting underserved students to educational excellence, so as we venture into these unknown waters, take the following five facts with you.

1. Vouchers and charters schools are two very different approaches to choice. While both serve as options for parents, vouchers send parents completely out of the public school system and, in many cases, require them to pay tuition balances that vouchers don’t cover.

Charter schools are non-traditional public schools enrolled entirely by lottery, and no exchange of money is involved for the parent.

2. Even without real evidence of student success on a large scale, Tennessee legislators are still willing to test the waters with our children. No matter which bill passes, vouchers will be available to Tennessee’s most vulnerable communities.

3. Currently, 14 states and D.C. Public Schools fund vouchers based on family income and/or students with disabilities. Each state has very specific income and/or Individualized Education Plan (IEP) requirements. Outliers: Maine and Vermont extend vouchers to students who live in an area with no operating schools. Ohio offers vouchers to every student in Cleveland school district falling under poverty line by 200%. There are other states that offer vouchers to students in schools with an ‘F’ designation.

4. Voucher legislation throughout country tends to start with small, specialized groups (poverty, IEP).

From the Washington Post:

“The political strategy that voucher supporters have used is to start off small and targeted — low-income families and special-education students — then gradually expand it to more groups,” said Douglas Harris, a Tulane University professor of economics who favors choice but has been critical of DeVos’s free-market approach. 

So, even though Tennessee’s most popular (and most likely to become law) voucher legislation targets low-income students in Shelby County, if passed, we can expect the program to grow to other counties while gradually adding other student groups.

5. If you care about accountability or the combining of church and state, then vouchers are not your thing. The taxpayer funded tuition payments will go to private schools which are not required to adhere to the state accountability standards required of the federally-funded public schools. Additionally, the government-funded tuition payments will be available to religious and parochial schools.

You will not find me on a corner screaming into a megaphone about the evils of vouchers. However, I find great discomfort in two premises rooted in Tennessee vouchers: first, our legislators’ willingness to sacrifice our most vulnerable. Each legislator is equipped with the same information about the void in proof of vouchers’ effectiveness, yet it doesn’t stop them from using our children in this grand experiment.

Second, Nashville’s private school history is nothing to brag about. In 1970, Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools had more than 95,000 students, a number never to be seen again (we are currently at 85,000 students). The very next year the district began busing, sending white students to private schools causing Metro Schools’ enrollment to plummet by 30,000 students throughout the next decade. Subsequently, in an effort to meet the demand of flocking families, the proliferation of Nashville private schools became the stuff of legend.

So, for me, the very idea of taxpayer dollars being used for many of the schools built to serve as a refuge from the students for which vouchers were created to serve, is a painful narrative. It’s like the state is settling an old debt. Sounds far fetched? Maybe.

As always, stay woke, my friends.

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