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."
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.