It’s hard to blame school teachers and administrators who feel that public education is under assault in Tennessee.
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos joined Tennessee Governor Bill Lee in Nashville on Monday to talk about school choice — a priority of Lee’s and a wish for DeVos.
DeVos, an embattled member of Donald Trump’s cabinet who appears to be at increasing odds with the president, has come under remarkable fire in recent weeks for her stances on public education — including eliminating funding for Special Olympics and larger class sizes.
In Tennessee, proposed changes to education aren’t nearly as dramatic, but it doesn’t make educators any more comfortable to see Lee cozying up to DeVos as his school-choice initiative gains traction.
Lee’s proposal, which would spend up to $125 million to establish “education savings accounts” for low- and middle-income families in areas with poor-performing schools, cleared a key committee hurdle last week and seems to be on track for a vote before the full state legislature this spring.
Opponents of the proposal say that education savings accounts, or ESAs, are merely another form of vouchers — which have long failed to gain traction in Tennessee politics. But proponents insist that ESAs, which are viewed much more favorably by voters than vouchers, according to polling data, are different.
There are some key contrasts. Vouchers, which are used in states like Indiana, pay for 100 percent of a student’s tuition at a private school but can’t be used for anything else. Lee’s ESAs might not necessarily cover 100 percent of a student’s tuition but could also be used for other private educational services — including tutoring, fees associated with the ACT and SAT and even home computers. The program would place an average of $7,300 on a restricted debit card for participating students. Enrollment would be capped at 5,000 in the first year, increasing to 15,000 by the fifth year. The initial cost would be $25 million, increasing to $125 million.
Eligibility for the program is determined by family income and school performance. Participating students must come from families with up to double the annual income under federal requirements for receiving free and reduced lunches — about $77,000 for a three-person household. Students must also be zoned in a school that falls within a district that has three or more schools in the state’s bottom 10 percent. Not surprisingly, given their size, that would apply to school districts in the state’s urban areas — Knoxville, Nashville, Memphis, Chattanooga and Jackson.
There are several reasons to applaud school-choice programs such as the one proposed by Lee — not the least because studies have shown that ESAs can increase high school graduation rates and translate to billions of dollars in economic impact further down the road. In theory, the program would also provide a voice and an alternative for low-income families whose children are being left behind by failing public schools.
Overwhelmingly, students at the lowest-performing public schools are from low-income families. Those parents have few options if they feel their students are being failed by their school. They cannot afford tuition at private schools and cannot afford to move to another school district.
But there are significant questions about just how much ESAs will help Tennessee’s low-income families. Even if all, or most, of a private school tuition is funded by an ESA, transportation would remain a significant obstacle for the state’s poorest parents. And with eligibility extending to household incomes as high as $93,000 for families of four, critics point out that it could amount to a subsidy for families who could otherwise afford to send their kids to private schools.
That cycles the debate back to the question that has been central to the voucher debate in Tennessee for years: why implement a program that would potentially siphon funding from public schools that are already strapped for cash?
The governor’s plan would initially place millions of dollars into a “transition fund” that would help affected school districts who will lose per-pupil state funding that follows those students to private schools. But that transition fund ends after just three years. Thereafter, the governor has pledged grants to help improve public school performance, but grants are a far cry from guaranteed funding.
Tennessee currently ranks a shameful 43rd nationally in education funding per pupil. Despite all of the talks of educational reform — along with increased accountability for teachers and students alike — the needle hasn’t moved much over the past decade with regard to funding. How much more good could be done with the $125 million that it will cost taxpayers to fund the ESA initiative if that money was put directly into public schools instead? Rather than giving a few students a way out, why wouldn’t we focus our efforts — and our tax dollars — on fixing those schools instead? It seems that the rush to provide educational choice for a few abandons the quest for a solution that would benefit the whole.
For years, voucher efforts in Tennessee have been stymied by Republicans in rural areas, who’ve joined forces with Democrats to provide just enough opposition to discourage the plan. It remains to be seen whether the ESA approach will coerce enough lawmakers in rural areas to enable passage. But it is disappointing that in a state with pressing needs such as health care — including measures that could strengthen failing hospitals in rural areas — the first major legislative fight of a new governor who pledged to put rural Tennessee first is this one.