Hamilton County officials question impact of voucher program on local school funding

Staff photo by Troy Stolt / Tennessee state Sen. Bo Watson answers questions during Hamilton County's annual Legislative Delegation Breakfast on Tuesday, Jan. 4, 2022, in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Hamilton County officials expressed concerns Tuesday that a potential update to how schools are funded in Tennessee could siphon funding from the county's public schools.

Speaking at his 12th and final legislative delegation meeting at the McDaniel Building before leaving office, county Mayor Jim Coppinger questioned the idea of a statewide school voucher program, which typically involves allowing parents to take money that would be spent on their children in public education and use it for a private school.

"We just want to make sure that we're being heard about how that can impact our school system and our funding and how to replace that funding," Coppinger said.

The Republican added that a potential reduction in public school funding as a result of a voucher program could leave the county with an unfunded mandate to educate remaining students with reduced funds.

(READ MORE: Tennessee Gov. Lee pushes for review of state's school funding formula)

Gov. Bill Lee is overhauling the state's education funding formulas, and the effort has included a push for a more per-student model of funding, instead of per school or per school system. Lee has denied that the effort is driven by a desire to use those per-student calculations to facilitate a statewide voucher program.

In 2019, with Lee's support, GOP lawmakers passed a bill providing school vouchers to qualifying students, but only in Memphis and Nashville schools, to use for private school tuition. Opponents sued, and the case is now before the Tennessee Supreme Court.

The state's 30-year-old system to fund schools calculates the funding for each school system and splits the funding responsibility between local and state governments.

State Sen. Bo Watson, a Hixson Republican who voted for the 2019 law, fielded questions at Tuesday's breakfast about the funding formula from county Commissioner Warren Mackey, D-Lake Vista, who asked multiple times whether funding would be taken from the county schools and instead be used to send students to private schools.

(READ MORE: Chattanooga area residents seek smaller classes, more support, at education funding forum)

Watson said the objective is the school district would lose no money with a new funding system - but he also added it's a possibility.

"Since it's a student-based program, that student's money goes with that child, so if you lose a student in the hands of the Hamilton County school system to some other school system, Hamilton County loses the student; they lose the funding to go to that student," Watson said.

Watson emphasized that any new funding laws would likely not see a vote in this year's legislative session, although discussions are ongoing.

In a follow-up interview, Mackey said using the term student-based funding is just Republicans playing "word games."

"Let's be clear," he said. "They're taking money from the public schools, and the concept is the money ought to follow the kid. Public school tax dollars need to stay in the public sector and not go to the private sector."

(READ MORE: Hamilton County has no plans to reinstate mask mandates amid COVID case surge)

Watson in a follow-up interview said his "biggest fear" is that politicians trying to tie student-based funding to student vouchers are politicizing an important issue.

Watson said a student-based model accounts for disabilities, low income, transportation needs and the like.

Vouchers, however, have nothing to do with the amount of money that would be given to a particular student, he asserted.

Instead, he said, the focus needs to be reforming education funding before conversations about voucher-specific programs.

The new superintendent of Hamilton County Schools, Justin Robertson, said after the meeting Tuesday he was glad to see the state having a conversation about funding in general.

"It's been 30 years since they've talked about funding in schools, so just the conversation and focus on students and what the compensation should be is what I'm excited about," he said.

School vouchers have been a contentious topic nationwide, with supporters citing the importance of school choice and the opposition arguing vouchers ostensibly cut funding to public schools.

There are 16 states, including Georgia and Arkansas, with voucher programs in the U.S., according to the Education Commission of the States.

Those wishing for more information about how the state funds schools or to offer input about what they'd like to see changed can do so at tn.gov/education/tnedufunding.html.

Contact Logan Hullinger at lhullinger@timesfreepress.com or 814-319-5158. Follow him on Twitter @LoganHullinger.