Vouchers, charter schools raise concerns, questions for Hamilton County school board members

Vouchers, charter schools raise concerns, questions for Hamilton County school board members

December 6th, 2012 by Rachel Bunn in Local Regional News

State Sen.-elect Todd Gardenhire, state Sen. Bo Watson and sState Rep. Richard Floyd, from left, listen to a question from principal LaFrederick Thirkill on Wednesday during the Hamilton County Council of PTAs legislative forum at Orchard Knob Elementary School.

Photo by John Rawlston /Times Free Press.

The idea of vouchers and charter schools raises an old question for Hamilton County school board member Jeffery Wilson: Would they lead to unequal educational outcomes?

Wilson, who represents District 5, said at the county PTA's annual legislative forum that state lawmakers need to be aware of Hamilton County concerns including vouchers, and charter schools and school equity.

"What should happen, whether you live in Orchard Knob or Soddy-Daisy or Hixson, your education should look similar across the board," Wilson said.

"What happens is, unfortunately, some of these schools they have different resources. They're in the same county, but that educational experience looks totally different. You don't want that to be the case, but that's the reality," he said.

Only three legislators -- state Sen. Bo Watson, Sen.-elect Todd Gardenhire and state Rep. Richard Floyd -- attended the PTA forum. They fielded questions about a possible school voucher program and improvements to schools, but said they didn't have many answers.

LaFrederick Thirkill, principal at Orchard Knob Elementary School, raised accountability concerns about vouchers, which would use tax dollars to pay for students to attend private and religious schools.

"When tax dollars from the public are used to send students to nonpublic schools, what accountability is in place to assure quality education?" he asked. "With public education, we have the state report card. However, findings for nonpublic schools are not reported in the same way."

Watson said a voucher task force established by Gov. Bill Haslam presented several options, but there's been no lengthy conversation about the program and its funding.

"It's a good question, and a fair question, and it's a question the task force has tried to answer in their accountability section," he said. "There isn't a full agreement as to how that accountability will be measured. ...There are several options on the table."

Rep. Floyd openly supported the voucher program.

"I think every child needs everything we can do to give [them] the best shot at education," he said.

Thirkill said the state could do several things to improve education besides enacting an unproven voucher program, such as requiring Tennessee teachers to be nationally certified and putting stronger, more qualified teachers in schools.

"If you put a highly effective teacher in the classroom, students will be able to achieve," he said.

Watson said the state already is putting the most qualified teachers in classrooms, though national certification has been discussed in the Legislature.

Katherine Smith, a member of the Hamilton County PTA, asked what the state could do to avoid the inequities in schools across the county.

"Nobody is consistently going out to these schools and looking at what these schools need," she said.

The lawmakers said the state only serves as a "pass through" for funding, and that questions about local school improvements needed to be addressed by local officials.

Pointing to local school board members, in the room, Gardenhire said, "We pass things down to the local level."