The Tennessee General Assembly has taken a first look at a serious, positive educational reform, though it won't actually take place this year.
By an encouraging 18-10 vote, the state Senate passed a bill to let low-income students in Tennessee's four biggest counties - Shelby, Davidson, Knox and Hamilton - attend private schools with vouchers. In Hamilton County, the vouchers would have been valued at about $4,600. (Tennessee spends well over $7,000 per pupil in public schools.)
But the bill was referred to a summer study committee in the House, so it is effectively dead for this year.
It deserves to be revived next year.
There is no one solution to every problem in education. That's because the problems are so varied. Some students are from broken homes. Some don't put forth much effort. And some teachers do not perform as well as we'd like, though many do a fine job.
So improving academic performance will take a variety of efforts - from ensuring adequate funding, to providing the option of charter schools that aren't burdened by the bureaucracy of traditional public schools, to promoting discipline at home and in the classroom.
But vouchers are another way to promote academic excellence, and we don't have to "theorize" about whether they can work. We know from experience that they can.
Vouchers became hugely popular in Washington, D.C., the past few years, as they let poor children in failing public schools in the nation's capital go to private schools instead. Students' academic performance improved, and their parents were more satisfied with the children's education and felt the children were in a safer environment. And all that was achieved at a fraction of the cost of educating students in D.C.'s public schools! Even the liberal Washington Post editorialized repeatedly in favor of Washington's voucher program.
Meanwhile, in Florida, students using vouchers performed as well academically as their peers in public schools, also at far lower cost. And a study found that in parts of Florida where vouchers boosted educational competition, public schools' performance often improved. Plus, while some fear that vouchers drain funds from public schools, the St. Petersburg Times reported that in one recent academic year, vouchers saved Florida nearly $39 million.
Vouchers are not a total answer to low achievement in public schools. But as Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, said in the Times Free Press, vouchers can help "parents who have their children trapped in a failing school but don't have the means to take them anywhere else."
House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, cautions that any voucher bill should be "done right." We agree. But a well-crafted voucher program can be a cost-effective boon to education.