If school vouchers becomes a key issue during the upcoming legislative session in Nashville, there’s at least one lawmaker who will be steadfastly against the idea.
State Senator Ken Yager, R-Kingston, told the Independent Herald last week that he is opposed to the idea of vouchers — which provide funds to parents to enroll their kids in private schools.
“I am opposed to vouchers,” Yager said. “I will not support any proposal that will cause a hemorrhage of needed funds to our schools.”
Once a hot-button topic in Tennessee, the issue of school choice was considered a back-burner issue more recently. But that changed with the election of Bill Lee to the state’s governor’s mansion. While all three of the Republican front-runners for governor supported vouchers in some form or fashion, Lee was the most vocal proponent for vouchers. Earlier this month, he said that he is an “advocate for choice,” and is open to promoting a school voucher program. Several of the governor-elect’s early cabinet appointees are strong supporters of vouchers.
Earlier this month, Scott County Director of Schools Bill Hall urged the county’s board of education to advocate for public schools by lobbying against vouchers.
“I think it’ll come up this year,” Yager said of vouchers. But, he added, he will not support legislation to establish a voucher program.
“One of the arguments on behalf of vouchers is freedom of choice,” Yager said. “I happen to believe we already have that choice. It’s called parental choice. You can send your kids to charter school if you want to, or to a private school, or you can home-school them or send them to a public school. The choice is already there.
“The issue,” Yager continued, “is using taxpayer dollars to fund a scholarship to a private school at the cost of public schools. I’m not going to support anything that’ll siphon off funds because our schools are already under-funded.”
Critics of vouchers have routinely argued that vouchers would be harmful to public schools. In theory — and, in some parts of the country, in practice — vouchers provide tax relief to help parents pay tuition fees to enroll their children in a private school. That funding is balanced by reducing state funding to public schools by a specified amount.
While Republicans in the state legislature have generally supported vouchers, they have not been able to reach a consensus on what a voucher program should look like in Tennessee. Some have argued for a broad voucher program, essentially opening tax-funded assistance to any parent who wishes to enroll their children in a private school. Others have argued for a narrower approach, limiting vouchers to low-income families whose children are zoned for a public school that performs poorly on state assessments. Still others — mainly Democrats, but some Republicans as well — have argued that the state should ditch the idea of vouchers entirely and focus its efforts on increasing funding for public schools.
Yager said it’s possible that as the voucher debate emerges in the months ahead, it’ll include some “hybrid” proposals. Theoretically, such proposals would be aimed at incentivizing support by legislators who remain skeptical of vouchers.
“I’m hearing there might be some hybrids offered,” Yager said. “But I don’t support vouchers. I haven’t, and I won’t.”
Other items that might come up during the looming legislative session include vocational education and voting machines.
Yager said he is “very supportive” of efforts by the Lee administration to bring more vocational education into the secondary school system. As for voting machines, it is an issue that he called a potential “sleeper,” but added that there is a move afoot to require the use of voting machines that create paper trails. Currently, most of the state’s voting machines do not leave paper trails and election administrators are generally opposed to changing the machines.
Another issue that could rise during 2019 is one of how to divide sales tax. A recent Supreme Court ruling held that states can collect sales tax on internet sales. But there has been no clear direction on how internet-generate sales taxes should be divided between cities and counties.
“I expect it to be a pretty light year, frankly, with the new governor,” Yager said. “I’m sure he’ll file some bills but I don’t think he’ll file that many. Generally, a new governor, until he finds his way, won’t file too many bills that first year. Also, a third of the House is new. There are 30 new faces. So that’s a wild card.”
While Lee has said he is not opposed to expanding Medicaid, that is an issue that Yager said is unlikely to come up in 2019. Gov. Bill Haslam proposed a program that would have expanded TennCare — the state’s Medicaid system — to include more low-income families, using Obamacare dollars. But it failed to generate much support among conservatives and never emerged from committee.
“I was one of the few Republicans who voted for Insure Tennessee,” Yager said. “I thought it was a good bill and I’d vote for it again.” But, he added, “For any type of health care to pass would require an initiative from the governor. I don’t know that he’d want to do that his first year in office.”