Governor’s Plans for a Voucher System Spark Local Reactions

Gathering in Opposition to School Vouchers, Knoxville, February 2024
Gathering in Opposition to School Vouchers, Knoxville, February 2024

Governor Lee has long been a vocal proponent of giving state funds to students and their families for use on educational expenses at private schools. A year-and-a-half ago the legislature passed a bill allowing for a limited pilot program. Just last week a draft of Governor Lee’s proposed bill, “The Education Freedom Scholarship Act,” was inadvertently posted online, giving interested parties a chance to see what might simply be an early draft.

Reactions were quick. Chalkbeat posted the text of the bill as it was published, along with its five take-aways on a first reading. What they noted:

  • The draft mentions nothing about accountability, meaning there is no included requirement to take the same tests public schools take each year, hire certified teachers, or to adhere to any specific (like the state) curriculum.
  • There is no language suggesting the school must not discriminate.
  • Private schools would not have to provide services for students with disabilities.
  • No out-of-state schools would be included, but the kinds of schools included would be expanded to include those which are not accredited.
  • The program starts with 20,000 students given $7,025 each and expands in the second year to include an unlimited number. The first year would have a budget of just over $141,000,000, afterwards the amount is unknown, but could potentially be much larger.

A few dozen people gathered on Market Square to support a resolution proposed by school board member Jennifer Owen expressing the board’s opposition to the new program. A series of speakers voiced concern over the proposed bill, focusing on the idea that it will take money that could be used to support public schools and pass it to private companies. The fact that teachers and students in public schools are evaluated based on test scores, which would not be the case with these schools, was also highlighted.

The $7,025 per student is more than the roughly $5,000 per student given to each public school where they now attend. The funding for those students would be removed from the school should the student go elsewhere. Additionally, while income caps are in place for the first year, they are removed for the second year, meaning affluent families would be given the money from tax funds to use on expensive private schools, if they choose to do so, while poor families really wouldn’t have the option because that amount of money is only a fraction of tuition at many private schools.

Gathering in Opposition to School Vouchers, Knoxville, February 2024

The travails of some of the early charter schools in the state were also noted. The Memphis Academy of Health Sciences, for example, one of the first charter schools in the state, was closed in 2022 after three administrators were charged with stealing $400,000 in state funds. The list seems to grow from there. Here’s a list of various schools in the state that have experienced similar malfeasance or graft, not paid teachers, or violated fire code to cram more students into classrooms.

The rally was a precursor to the Knox County Board of Education work session held just afterward. At that work session, Jennifer Owen did reference the resolution opposing the program, though it will not be up for a vote until Thursday. While the board doesn’t have decision making power regarding vouchers and charter schools or private schools, the thought is that legislators who do have that power might be influenced by such statements of opposition.

Daniel Watson spoke passionately in favor of the resolution to oppose vouchers, saying expansion when the pilot is less than two years old seems premature and the students who have been tested in those schools are scoring 19% lower, on average, than their public-school counterparts. Later, he responded to board members Betsy Henderson and Steve Triplett expressing support for vouchers and opposition to the resolution because they “believe in competition.” “There are losers in competition. That works great in business, but when it comes to the social good, we don’t want to create winners and losers. Right now, our students get about $2,000 less than private schools. You harm the system that will impact the most children. As you siphon funds you hurt the larger group.”

Gathering in Opposition to School Vouchers, Knoxville, February 2024

Owen pointed out that there isn’t adequate money to support two school systems, which is essentially the proposal. She pointed out that when school vouchers were first discussed (following Brown vs. Board of Education, when legislators wanted to fund white-only schools) the state recognized that financial realities do not allow supporting two school systems.

Triplett said it would be “arrogant to think that public schools can meet the needs of every child.” Betsy Henderson concurred saying, “Our country is built on competition. Every parent and child should have options. The idea that money is being taken out of our public schools is a scare tactic.”

Four community members spoke in support of the resolution and two spoke against it.

Regardless of whether the resolution passes or fails, state legislators will soon grapple with the legislation. Democrats are largely on record as opposing vouchers, but Republicans hold a super-majority in this state, so they will ultimately make the decision. A few have expressed misgivings, so the outcome isn’t clear and the proposed legislation may change over the coming months.

If you have an opinion, this would be a very good time to let your legislator know how you feel. It’s easy to find your state senator and representative, along with their contact information here.