published Monday, February 11th, 2013

Smith: Vouchers offer path to better education

By Robin Smith
  • photo
    Robin Smith, former Chairman of the Tennessee Republican Party and congressional candidate.
    File Photo/Chattanooga Times Free Press

Sitting in the crowded Tennessee House gallery as Tennessee's Governor Bill Haslam gave his vision for the next year in the State of the State address, many of the remarks and primary focus was directed toward the needs of education in our state.

Governor Haslam was clear that at all levels, reforms are not needed for the sake of change but to educate and equip students for growth in a high-tech world, in a demanding job market and in a lifetime requiring extended learning for career progress.

The most controversial of the governor's remarks have been attributed to his support of school vouchers. If you were to read the news across the region, you would most likely have the impression that every school system will be impacted by the voucher proposal and that "diverting" funding to private schools will be the rule.

Let's apply the Bunsen burner to the crucible and distill the critical elements out of the voucher plan offered by the Haslam Administration.

First, the only students eligible for vouchers, or a set sum of money per pupil paid by the state, are currently attending schools that have been deemed "failing." This designation is no random definition pulled from thin air. Rather, the "lowest-performing institutions in the state" have sadly earned the rank of "priority schools" by the Tennessee Department of Education through years of assessment and data collection.

Of the 1,693 public schools in Tennessee, only 83 are on the "priority school" list. The location of these schools is limited: six in Hamilton and Davidson counties, one each in Knox and Hardeman counties and the remaining 69 are in Shelby county. There is no system-wide call for vouchers. Only schools not responsive to years of corrective measures are the focus.

Second, not only does a student have to be enrolled in a failing school, the student also has to meet an "at risk" criteria based on low-family income and participate in the free/reduced lunch program.

Third, of 912,124 public school students in Tennessee, only 5,000 vouchers will be available during the first year, a whopping 0.5 percent of the student population. In 2016, the number of vouchers will be expanded to 20,000, or 2 percent of the entire current public school population.

And, finally, the amount of the voucher will be determined by the Basic Education Program (BEP) formula that drives the amount spent per pupil by the state to the local school district -- about $6,000 in Chattanooga.

So, the opposition to these vouchers is advocating money being spent year after year on failed performance instead of giving each child a chance to be prepared for success.

The funding of failure is more than a policy conflict in these schools by politicos. The funding of continued failure locks a child into a path that is limited by the value of the service provided and an end-result of limitation.

We have all dined at a restaurant with poor service, an ill-prepared dish, a less-than-clean environment and/or an excessive price for the meal served. We've also had the opportunity to select another establishment next time or a simple decision never to return. Consumer decides.

With the critical process of education, failure should not be rewarded. It's so very consequential to allow a parent to place their child in the best learning environment.

Governor Bill Haslam's "Tennessee Choice and Opportunity Scholarship Act" doesn't attack public schools. It offers a pathway of greater opportunity and success for students trapped in a failing institution.

Remember, it's about our students and our state's future.

Robin Smith is a wife and mother living in Hixson. She served as chairwoman of the Tennessee Republican Party from 2007 to 2009.

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AndrewLohr said...

So far so good. How can a small voucher excel a more expensive system education? Because with the voucher the family can pursue the education they want, whether the system offers it or not. Because s small voucher will leave more money per student left in the system, if the laws are written that way. If 5,000 students save the system $2000 each by leaving at a cost of $6000 each instead of staying at a cost of $8000 each, then the system has an extra $10 per student for each of the million students staying in the system: a win all around, if the laws are written that way.

Of course, letting any student leave for $5000 instead of staying for $8000 or $10,000 would offer such savings to every district and school, not just to the worst schools in our state, and I think letting parents choose such savings a great idea. Let them spend the money on home, private, other public school, college, education savings account, or plain retirement account--drop out of school, study real life, park the money in a retirement account, and retire a millionaire. Diversity, parental involvement, accountability, flexibility, voluntary savings rather than "cuts," more money per student in the system--yes! (Rather than bureaucratic oversight, just require voucher users to take any standardized test they choose that 10,000 other students take, and require 4 Tennessee taxpayers to sign off on approving whatever the voucher user is doing. Maybe election offices can, for a small fee, verify these 4 signatures, since they're used to verifying signatures.

You who represent me, do this: these are my instructions and I pay you to work out the details.

February 11, 2013 at 1:06 a.m.
BigRidgePatriot said...

The government school system has trouble responding to the rapidly changing educational needs of a world that is changing so fast. The results are quite apparent. The bureaucracy surrounding the public classroom is not equipped for the pace of change, it is the nature of the beast.

Our literacy rate is now lower than it was before public education was started.

School vouchers that represent an amount that is anything less than what the public schools spend on that same student is a win win for everyone. The sooner we make those funds available to parents we will see an explosion in innovative learning opportunities that will show us how to become a world leader in education.

February 11, 2013 at 10:20 a.m.
TirnaNOG said...

Vouchers aren't the solution. The failure or success of a student isn't determined by the builing they're taught in, but the relationship, positive or negative, school staff has with its students and parents. If the environment is an overall positive one, the students will learn even if the teacher is mediocre, but still has a passion for both teaching and the students he or she is teaching. On the other hand, a negative school atmoshpere will always guarantee and produce failing students. All it takes is one year of being taught in a negative atmosphere to wipe out what 2 or 3 years of good teaching has accomplished.

February 11, 2013 at 4:43 p.m.
BigRidgePatriot said...

Let me see... The government schools have demonstrated that they have mastered the creation of a negative school atmosphere, but the answer cannot be to recover money from that educational system so it can be taken to one that can create a positive educational experience. Does that make sense to anyone? It does not make sense to me.

February 11, 2013 at 7:53 p.m.
jjmez said...

Schools should be run like a business. Where workers will be either rewarded for producing a good product or fired for proeduction a flawed one. I agree. In that the relationship a school has with the community it serves will determine the success or failure of the students. Just take a look at what successful schools have that failing schools don't: The teachers and staff most often live in the communities they serve. They're next door neighbors to the families whose children they teach in their classroom. The teachers and staff own children often attend the very school their parents teach and work in. They play together, have cookouts together, sleepovers. There's no way a child will be allowed to fail in such tightly knit atmosphere. That kind of close relationship is totally lacking or altogether non-existing in failing schools. Give out vouchers and the failing students who run to the successful schools, and the students, parents, teachers and staff who will run away from those schools to avoid the failing students who show up, and over time you'll have the same problem. Failing students failing and those students who have closely knitted relationships and ties, will move on to another spoit and recreate that successful learning atmosphere.

February 11, 2013 at 9:53 p.m.
inquiringmind said...

Vouchers spell the end of public education, something the extremists (read racists) have wanted for years. Do Robin's children attend, or attended, public schools?

AndrewLohr, you and Robin live in a different, elitist, make-believe world from the rest of us. If it costs a certain amount of money to educate a child, then moving tax money arpund with "vouchers" is a shell game that at best preserves the status quo, or at worst leads to the collapse of public education. That benefits the wealthy, the only ones who can afford to pay for private instruction. The only people who benefit from vouchers are the well-to-do.

If anything, it should be mandatory that all children attend public school. What the parents want to pay for after school is their business, just be sure they attend public school during school hours.

Then get serious about how we solve the problem of a vast multi-generational poverty.

February 12, 2013 at 9:35 a.m.
BigRidgePatriot said...

inquiringmind said... "Vouchers spell the end of public education,"

That would only be true if government schools do not fix themselves. They have big technical advantages over any private school in that they can pursue the funding for their enterprise by the force of a gun. If the vouchers only represent part of the cost of educating someone in a public school, everyone who leaves the public school with their voucher leaves greater funding per student in the public school. If a significant percentage left, you would have a large increase in available funding left for each child in public schools. Yes, some public schools would have to close or downsize in order to capture the budget advantage (and you have to wonder if government is smart enough or has the will to do this).

How did we ever get so government oriented in this country that people cannot see these simple facts? How did you lose faith in your own abilities? Why are you so willing to overlook the failure of what you cling to so tightly?

February 12, 2013 at 11:44 a.m.
Easy123 said...


"They have big technical advantages over any private school in that they can pursue the funding for their enterprise by the force of a gun."

No serious person can believe that garbage.

"How did we ever get so government oriented in this country that people cannot see these simple facts?"

There is nothing "government oriented" about supporting public schooling.

"How did you lose faith in your own abilities?"

How did you? Why do you continue demonizing public school based on your own child's issues?

"Why are you so willing to overlook the failure of what you cling to so tightly?"

Who is ignoring the failures of public education? Those failures are addressed nearly everyday and solutions to those problems are always being sought and implemented.

February 12, 2013 at 12:34 p.m.
Rickaroo said...

Andrew Lohr's reasoning is typical conservative wackiness: less money (for the public schools) equals more money. If the money allotted for the public schools were targeted for only the students, then your lame-brained arithmetic might work. But the fact is that there are huge fixed costs in every school, above and beyond the students' costs. So in the end there truly is LESS money for the public schools when more money is siphoned into vouchers.

That is one of the main things that public school teachers are complaining about: less and less money to run their schools efficiently. If your less money = more money theory actually held water, they wouldn't have to keep laying off teachers, and there wouldn't be the continued overcrowding. But then, what's to be expected from the ridiculous logic of conservatives who think that permanent tax cuts and even more spending on an already bloated military budget should be part of the equation for erasing the deficit? Or from Bible thumpers like him who think that all of the bad sh#t that happens in the world stems from a talking snake tricking a woman into eating an apple from a forbidden tree?

February 12, 2013 at 1:24 p.m.
Rickaroo said...

“The sooner we make those funds available to parents we will see an explosion in innovative learning opportunities that will show us how to become a world leader in education.” - BRP

Baloney. Vouchers have been around since 1990 and have been increasing at a steady pace ever since. While there has been somewhat of an increase in charter and magnet schools over the years there has not been anything like an “explosion of innovative learning opportunities.” The only explosion of learning opportunities that we have experienced in the free market are those online, for-profit schools that are mostly rip-offs, geared for making a quick profit for their originators. And even if those online academies and trade schools were a viable alternative they are aimed at higher education, not K-12. But an explosion of these types of rip-off institutions is a good example of the kind of "innovative learning opportunities" we would likely see for K-12 if our education system was left entirely up to the free market.

Moreover, we don’t have the luxury of waiting around to see if some school-minded entrepreneurs are going to come up with just the right solutions to all the varied problems we have regarding the education of all the kids throughout the country. We have a huge crisis that needs to be addressed with concerted effort and urgency. Vouchers are not even a quick fix. They are the wrong path entirely. What you vouchers advocates are calling empowerment or “free choice” is free choice for a privileged and fortunate few with no concern whatsoever for those left behind in the system that you so greatly deplore.

Let's assume that the government made vouchers available to every family immediately. Where are all those kids going to go? We could not get good, quality schools built fast enough to accommodate them. We are going to have to come up with a unified plan. No team of entrepreneurs is going to be able devise a for-profit system that will meet the many and varied needs of educating the nation's kids. That is one of the things we actually have a government for: to take care of needs just such as this, as equitably as possible. Our public education system still has some very good schools. It is mostly in the inner cities where the problems abound. We need to fix what we have. And we CAN fix it.

February 12, 2013 at 1:42 p.m.
BigRidgePatriot said...

How can you guys type so many words and not make a point worth reading?

You don't have to wait for anything. It is better for everyone if there was a measured migration to a system of education where more children are educated in the private sector. If you try to ram-rod it through (like Washington seems to do) you will not get as good of a result. You are creating false problems (again, like Washington) so you can say it will not work!

I think Robin mentioned that only 0.5% of the students would be eligible for vouchers the first year (under Haslam's plan) and 2% the second year. I would imagine many of those eligible will not partake. In my opinion that is too limited. You certainly do not have to worry about the ability of private options to develop at that modest pace.

February 12, 2013 at 2:33 p.m.
Rickaroo said...

Reading comprehension not working out too good for ya, BRP? Your last sentence shows your complete failure to address one of the main points I was making: we do not have the luxury of dealing with this problem at a "modest pace!" We have fallen so far behind in the education of our kids for so long now that we cannot just wait around to see what the "magic" of the free market is going to make available to us. Working with concerted effort and on a grand scale does not necessarily mean that something is being "ramrodded" through. We have the same sense of urgency about our infrastructure and our economy. We needed something done to address these problems YESTERDAY but you free market, government-hating zealots think that ONLY the free market should handle these things. But look what's happened so far: NOTHING. Our infrastructure is crumbling before our very eyes, our economy stagnates in the toilet (even though corporations and the super-rich have more money than they've ever had, they are not creating jobs), and our kids continue to stagnate in a system that needs to be - and can be - fixed, but you choose to not only ignore it but siphon more and more money away from it....into a free market system that is ill equipped to handle it.

February 12, 2013 at 3:05 p.m.
BigRidgePatriot said...

Rickaroo, I am not saying that the public schools should not be improved while the private option is expanded! Why is everything always in absolutes with you guys? Expanding the private options gives many children a chance for a better education right away, it increases funding for kids in government schools, and it will generate new ways of educating (in the private schools) that the public schools would be free to copy. It is a win-win for everyone.

If you insist on suppressing the private options it will not make the public option stronger, it will allow it to wallow in the same excuses it has used for decades, and will dream up new ones to boot. Monopolies do not encourage innovation, they cling to the status quo.

Diversity is good, right? How about more diversity in education options!

February 12, 2013 at 5:48 p.m.
Easy123 said...


It would appear, from BRP's responses, that he doesn't actually read anything you or myself actual post. He just types out his "libertarian" response with no regard to what others have actually said and/or believe.

February 12, 2013 at 6:32 p.m.
BigRidgePatriot said...


You got it, I do not read the vast majority of what you post. The most precious thing we all have on this earth is time. If you managed to share something worth reading in even a small fraction of your posts I would read them in the hope of finding a nugget of truth to consider. Sadly, the overwhelming majority of what you pollute these pages with is not worth the time it takes to read. I reserve the right to spend my time reading the posts of those who have demonstrated some kind of intellectual ability. Rickaroo has thoughtful responses, even if I find myself disagreeing with his conclusions most of the time.

February 12, 2013 at 7:19 p.m.
Easy123 said...


"If you managed to share something worth reading in even a small fraction of your posts I would read them in the hope of finding a nugget of truth to consider."

How could you ever know if I did or not when you don't read my posts?

"Sadly, the overwhelming majority of what you pollute these pages with is not worth the time it takes to read."

How would you know that if you don't read my posts in the first place?

"I reserve the right to spend my time reading the posts of those who have demonstrated some kind of intellectual ability."

No, you don't. You spend your time reading posts and then basically ignoring what the person said. You don't want honest debate. That's why you ignore people that criticize you directly. You know full well it has nothing to do with intellectual ability because I've had discussions with you before and shown several times how illogical and incorrect many of the things you have posted in the past were. You're pretentious and markedly so.

"Rickaroo has thoughtful responses, even if I find myself disagreeing with his conclusions most of the time."

Yet you never actually address the content of Rickaroo's posts. It seems like you read one or two sentences and then respond with your typical "libertarian" diatribe.

February 12, 2013 at 9:04 p.m.
conservative said...

"How can you guys type so many words and not make a point worth reading?"

It is called bloviating for the purpose of obfuscation.

They often don't want others to know what they really believe and that is why they will not be candid or concise.

February 13, 2013 at 10:47 a.m.
Easy123 said...


"They often don't want others to know what they really believe and that is why they will not be candid or concise."

Then why are you and your ilk so adamant against liberal beliefs if they don't want you to know what they believe? Are you suggesting you know the inner workings of liberals and their ulterior motives? How deluded can you be?

Every poster here that engages you is overtly candid AND concise. You, on the other hand, major in vagueness, hyperbole, misinformation, deceit, fallacy, and propaganda.

February 13, 2013 at 10:53 a.m.
inquiringmind said...


I'm all for you paying to send you kid to some private school, just be sure you use your own dime for 100% of the cost and continue to pay the taxes that support a public school system created to provide a education for all citizens regardless of ability to pay.

The major force behind vouchers is racism, it began when inner city schools became predominately African-American by de facto segregation when people decided to move out of the city rather than fix the problems.

Please provide one piece of credible, scientific evidence vouchers have improved public education.

February 14, 2013 at 8:26 a.m.
raygunz said...

A for-profit school that was hyped by Republican lawmakers as a solution to Tennessee’s education problems recently admitted deleting bad grades to “more accurately recognize students’ current progress.”

A December email obtained by WTVF showed that Tennessee Virtual Academy’s vice principal instructed middle school teachers to delete “failing grades” from October and September.

Read all about it,

Where's the TFP coverage of this?

February 14, 2013 at 9:49 a.m.
jjmez said...

The plan has been to draw poor inner city dwellers away from the core of the inner city to bring in higher paying property tax payers. The first few options and attempts didn't work. The vouchers are just a scheme to draw students away from poor performing schools and fill those school with the children from the higher tax paying class. That's what happened with the school across the river that's gained national recognition. A better learning atmosphere wasn't created for the students who were already there. They just brought in students from well-to-do and wealthy families who were already succeeding academically. Whose parents were doctors, lawyers or well connected and wouldn't be allowed to fail anyway.

There was a private school waiting in the wings for the closing of one particular low performing inne city school that was suppose to be closed almost a decade ago, but the people protested to keep it open. In the end, however, others will likely get their way because the poor aren't organized and there's no one at the helm to help advise and guide them.

February 14, 2013 at 10:11 a.m.
nucanuck said...

It's easy to be against monopolies in principle, but there are real and valid reasons why in some cases they are needed. Nothing is more basic to a healthy society than offering a solid basic education and offering equal health care access to all. The free market offers many strengths, but equal access is not one of those strengths.

If we truly want a better America we will find a way to improve education and health care for all and not leave out those at the bottom.

Vouchers and private schools help those who partake, but they do not improve the results for the remainder. Health care has similar short-comings. US Goverment employees have perfect healthcare coverage at no cost to them, some employers offer excellent health care packages, smaller companies struggle to offer health care, and many millions have no health care at all. We can't all have BMWs and vacation homes, but we as a nation can and should offer equal basic education and health care for all.

February 14, 2013 at 12:51 p.m.
BigRidgePatriot said...

nucanuck said... "It's easy to be against monopolies in principle, but there are real and valid reasons why in some cases they are needed."

OK, I am ready to hear the real and valid reasons. People keep saying things like that without answering the reality that every voucher leaves money behind in the education system so there is MORE money left per student in the government run schools. Let's stop talking in platitudes!

February 15, 2013 at 4:22 p.m.
BigRidgePatriot said...

inquiringmind said... "The major force behind vouchers is racism"

Racism? How about providing a good education for students that are being failed by government run schools.

This business of throwing the "racism" word around to prejudice the discussion is tiring.

February 15, 2013 at 4:25 p.m.
Easy123 said...

"How about providing a good education for students that are being failed by government run schools."

Name a school "run by the government".

"This business of throwing the "racism" word around to prejudice the discussion is tiring."

The business of ignoring blatant racism is even more tiring.

February 15, 2013 at 4:28 p.m.
BigRidgePatriot said...

The best educational systems of the future will look nothing like what is going on in government schools today. The private sector will be where the innovation happens. People who really care about getting a great education for children will let less affluent parents use vouchers to take advantage of an education revolution while the public schools cling to dysfunctional education models.

February 15, 2013 at 4:29 p.m.
Easy123 said...


"The private sector will be where the innovation happens."

What innovation are you referring to?

"of an education revolution"

What "education revolution" are you referring to?

I thought you wanted to stop talking in platitudes.

"while the public schools cling to dysfunctional education models."

The only real difference in the "models" is class size. Similar schedules, similar class selection, similar teacher qualifications, etc.

February 15, 2013 at 4:33 p.m.
BigRidgePatriot said...

Easy, it seems like all you want to do is argue and contradict. Can you think of one thing I have ever written that you can agree with, or at least intrigues you? If not, don't you think it is a waste of time trying to engage me?

February 15, 2013 at 7:02 p.m.
Easy123 said...


You've just exposed your agenda. So much for that intelligent, honest conversation you claimed to seek.

Why do I have to agree with you or be intrigued by anything you say for you to back up your own rhetoric? You can stroke your own ego, I won't do it for you. If you questioned or criticized anything I say here, I would back my beliefs and ideas up. I wouldn't put on a pretentious act like you do. I don't need to agree with you on anything in order to have a discussion with you.

It seems like all you want to do is have your opinion accepted without question. I asked you simple questions, yet you can't even get off your high-horse for one second to answer them or even realize when you're being a hypocrite.

I'll continue to engage you whether you respond or not.

February 15, 2013 at 11:32 p.m.
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