published Wednesday, November 2nd, 2011

Fight builds over school vouchers for low-income students in Tennessee

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    Republican Rep. Bill Dunn of Knoxville
    Contributed Photo from AP Photo/Erik Schelzig

Should the state give low-income students vouchers to attend private schools?

NASHVILLE — Critics of a bill that would mandate school voucher programs in Tennessee’s four largest public school systems charged Tuesday that the proposal amounts to a government-funded “bailout” for private schools.

“I don’t know what you think of the federal government’s bailout of the auto industry, the bailout of banks or of Wall Street,” Davidson County School Board member Mark North told a legislative subcommittee, “but diverting funds away from public schools to bail out private schools is bad policy.”

His comments came as the House Education Subcommittee listened to advocates and opponents of the bill. The measure seeks to create voucher programs in Hamilton, Knox, Davidson and Shelby counties. No votes were taken on the bill, which passed the Republican-run Senate last year but stalled in the House, which Republicans also control.

All four counties’ school systems oppose the legislation, which lets low-income students use vouchers to attend private schools. Half the money that the state and local schools now put in for education for students on free or reduced lunch programs — an indicator of poverty — would follow students under the bill.

Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, the bill’s House sponsor, said it allows parents to “make decisions” and “focuses on children who don’t have a choice” to flee failing public schools.

“This is just another piece of the puzzle,” Dunn said.

The superintendent of Catholic Schools for the Diocese of Memphis, Mary McDonald, took issue with North’s “bailout” characterization. She also took on criticisms that vouchers for private schools would snatch money from public schools required to serve all students, including the poor.

“Private doesn’t equate with exclusive,” McDonald said.

To make her point, she outlined a 13-year-old privately funded scholarship program for Catholic schools in Memphis which allowed the diocese to reopen eight schools to serve poor inner-city Memphis.

The schools have a waiting list, McDonald said, and vouchers would allow officials to expand their offerings to even more children on free or reduced lunch programs and children for whom English is a second language.

“The schools provide everything that the child needs and the family needs to receive this excellent education,” she said. “Also, because they are funded by private and corporate donations, there’s a great deal of accountability.”

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    Nashville Metro Schools Director Jesse Register, a former Hamilton County schools superintendent

During the hearing, lawmakers heard from Nashville Metro Schools Director Jesse Register, a former Hamilton County schools superintendent. Register spoke on behalf of the four school systems.

Tennessee has spent five years “creating the national gold standard in accountability for public education,” Register said, passing “some of the most aggressive reform efforts in the nation.”

Those efforts include new teacher evaluations, tougher tenure laws, “aggressive” charter school legislation, abolishing collective bargaining by teachers and adopting tougher course standards.

“We must allow time for these reform efforts to work,” Register said. “We must realize that the extent of these reform measures makes us vulnerable.”

He called the voucher bill “at best a diversion” and contended it would drain badly needed money for public education in a state that already ranks 49th in education funding.

But the Rev. Kenneth Whalum, a Shelby County school board member, said he was “tired” of seeing poor children get short shrift when it comes to education.

“I’m tired ... of watching poor children across our state being continually denied a quality education because behemoth administrative bureaucracies that do more to perpetuate” failure, he told the committee.

about Andy Sher...

Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...

Comments do not represent the opinions of the Chattanooga Times Free Press, nor does it review every comment. Profanities, slurs and libelous remarks are prohibited. For more information you can view our Terms & Conditions and/or Ethics policy.
Astropig said...

This is what happens when poor kids try to escape the 'ol plantation. Jesse Register was a monumental failure here, so if he's opposed to the voucher proposal, intelligent people should be for it.

How can any caring adult deny these kids a shot at a better life that comes through superior education. This is being cast as an attack on public schools when in fact it is just an attempt to help these young people have a fighting chance in the grown up world.

The parents that will move their kids to a better circumstance are true patriots and I am in their corner. They truly love their kids enough to give them a better shot at success. The people that would stand in their way are the racists that are literally standing in the schoolhouse door.

November 2, 2011 at 10:30 a.m.
EaTn said...

Using a portion of education funds for private school vouchers is an excellent way to water-down public education even further. But that's what happens when money talks louder than parents.

November 2, 2011 at 11:21 a.m.

They fear vouchers because they can't possibly compete. Not in a million years. The corruption of the NEA and teachers unions has completely ruined public schools and they know it. What people like EaTn fear is that you will choose not to continue to allow your children to be indoctrinated. What I think about when I consider vouchers is the increased freedom I will have in choosing what my children learn and from whom they learn it. Competition always improves a product.

November 2, 2011 at 12:12 p.m.
joneses said...

This is a government funded bailout of student who have been indctrinated into the liberal union idea of education. I know a kid who canot even read in the 9th grade and his 8th grade teacher still has a job. The teachers unions have ruined our education system and they should be outlowed. Private schools can educate a child for cheaper and better.

November 3, 2011 at 6:40 a.m.
EaTn said...

So you folks would rather fight for the benefit of a few privileged kids rather than fight to correct any issues and benefit all the state kids.

November 3, 2011 at 6:58 a.m.
Astropig said...

"So you folks would rather fight for the benefit of a few privileged kids rather than fight to correct any issues and benefit all the state kids."

Nope. Thats divisive class warfare nonsense. We want to make every kid privileged to have a decent education.

November 3, 2011 at 8:35 a.m.
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