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With his proposal for a limited-value voucher program for students in failing schools, Gov. Bill Haslam has embraced private schools at the expense of public schools.

The mental gymnastics that allow Gov. Bill Haslam and state lawmakers to praise the governor's proposed limited-voucher program for students in so-called failing schools are staggering.

These vouchers would siphon off state education funds to private schools for a limited number of students -- 5,000 across the state in 83 high-poverty schools -- whose parents want to take them out. That would leave the schools that the governor says need help with significantly reduced state funding and with fewer motivated parents and students.

These are precisely the type of students and parents the hard-pressed schools need as models, advocates and leaders. But for those left behind under, the problem of improving student performance, not to mention the lopsided financial burden left to local school boards, would instantly become dramatically harder.

Yet this is Haslam's and the Republican legislative leaders' pretense for solving the tough issues of lagging student performance in what are conveniently labeled "failing schools" or "low-performing" schools. They couldn't be further from the truth. And their semantics can't disguise the disingenuous flaws in this approach.

In reality, the introduction of a limited number of vouchers for schools with low-performing students is a back-door way to dismiss and ultimately dismantle re-segregated schools burdened by the socio-economic problems of mostly minority students in the state's largest urban centers -- Memphis, Nashville, Chattanooga and Knoxville. The problem with these vital neighborhood schools is not that the schools themselves are under-performing: Reconstitution of these schools' teachers, staffs and administrators in recent years has largely cleaned out whatever deadwood there once was.

The problem typically is that these schools still have too few teachers, resources and catch-up programs to effectively teach children who largely come from homes and neighborhoods where lack of early education and severe socio-economic circumstances hinder student achievement for the majority of kids from the get-go. The high percentage of students in these schools who qualify for free or reduced-price breakfasts and lunches is a telling indicator of schools in impoverished neighborhoods with severe socio-economic conditions that are yet to be addressed.

What Haslam should be saying is that it's time to double-down for the long-term on pre-kindergarten and before- and after-school mentoring programs, and serious parental out-reach and mentoring. Anything less is not going to reverse the economic and cultural dysfunction that perpetuates under-achievement.

Haslam, this county's new state senator, Todd Gardenhire, and Chattanooga's Rep. Gerald McCormick, the House sponsor for the governor's legislative proposals -- all advocates of charter schools over well-supported public schools -- should know this by now. Their core problem is that so many far-right Republicans just want to support vouchers for other reasons.

First, they see establishment of vouchers for more ambitious minority students and their parents as an exit strategy for pretending to worry about under-achievement among the larger minority population. Secondly, they see it ultimately as a path toward state aid for tuition to private, largely religious schools. Their political goal is to appease a white-majority middle-class political base which resents seeing extra aid to assure adequate resources to minorities in public schools, while they're often paying extra for private religious schools.

Gardenhire defended the proposal as a way to take care of kids and parents who want vouchers for private schools, "and then the market will take care of itself." That's baloney. Vouchers would use tax dollars to distort the public-vs-private education market, undermining support for public schools. Haslam portrayed his proposal as "literally putting our money where our mouth is." No: He's embraced private schools at the expense of public schools.

Haslam further camouflaged his flagging support for public education by saying that his administration had "fully funded" the education budget for three years. But that's not true: Hamilton County's school system has yet to receive the second $12 million installment step that was promised under the recalculated BEP formula before the financial implosion of 2007-2008. The governor's disingenuous lip-service to education is wholly disheartening.

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