Vouchers will hurt public schools

This post originally appeared in The Tennessean on January 13th, 2013.

The Tennessee legislature opened a new session this past week amid intense speculation over possible legislative initiatives. Many challenges are facing our legislators in this coming session, but none is more important than continuing to improve our children’s education by supporting our local public schools.

Our public schools are at a crossroad, with Tennessee’s future economic well-being requiring an educated workforce equal to the challenging jobs of the 21st century. The Race to the Top and other recent reforms have put Tennessee education on the right glide slope for improvement, and we should give these actions time to take full effect — and to be paid for. Now is not the time to get sidetracked with issues that can do real harm to our progress.

One sure-fire way to do more harm than good is to implement a school voucher program. Gov. Bill Haslam and the legislature wrestled with this issue last year. In a bid to delay legislative action while taking a more thoughtful approach, the governor appointed a task force to study creation of a voucher program. The task force submitted their report last November but punted on providing any real options. They were unable to reach a consensus on a voucher program, leaving it up to the legislature to shape any potential bill.

The voucher program, which backers call the “opportunity scholarship program” to make it sound more acceptable, would divert state and local funding to private schools. Since it is unlikely that existing high-end private schools will settle for what they consider the small tuition amount available from public schools, the scene is set for an explosion of for-profit, strip-mall schools created expressly to make money from a voucher program.

It is hard to see, when Tennessee consistently ranks near the bottom in funding public schools, how taking money away from our communities and giving those tax dollars to private or charter schools created from scratch will help better educate our children. It is even more unwise since there is evidence that these schools on average do not perform any better than regular public schools.

Another way for the legislature to do harm is to create a statewide charter authorizer (SCA) to take authority to establish charter schools away from our local school boards. This is a clear case of bigger government thinking it knows better than the parents and officials in the local community. Certainly in reaction to the Great Hearts controversy, some legislators seem ready to let “big brother” overrule the legitimate decisions of local school boards made for their school systems.

This push to establish an SCA has been heavily lobbied by out-of-state, self-styled “reformers” and organizations with obvious business interests in charter schools. In essence, they are saying that local communities are not capable of making their own decisions about charter schools, and that some authority in Nashville will know better. This is not only insulting, but flies in the face of Tennessee’s strong history of local self-government.

So the “choice” to do no harm is clear. Reject these anticipated legislative actions establishing programs to transfer local tax money and authority from our community-run schools to private, for-profit schools and a state-run bureaucracy. If they become law, the result will be less funding for public schools, less transparency in school operations and loss of accountability to parents without an improvement in educating our children. A voucher program and SCA are not what Tennessee’s students need to meet the challenges of the 21st century; what is needed is continued strong support for our local public schools.

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