Smith: Vouchers offer path to better education

Smith: Vouchers offer path to better education

February 11th, 2013 By Robin Smith in Opinion Columns

Robin Smith, former Chairman of the Tennessee Republican Party and congressional candidate.

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.