Sohn: Lawmakers, just say no to Gov. Bill Lee's school voucher plan

Sohn: Lawmakers, just say no to Gov. Bill Lee's school voucher plan

April 16th, 2019 by Pam Sohn in Opinion Times

We should find out today if our Tennessee lawmakers really — and we mean really — support improving education in Hamilton County and our state or whether they just want state taxpayers to help pay for private school tuition and home schools.

Today, the 11-member Senate Finance Committee will decide whether to pass out to the floor Republican Gov. Bill Lee's controversial, voucher-like "education savings account" proposal, dubbed the ESA.

Chattanooga Republican Todd Gardenhire sits on the Senate committee, as does Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, who is the panel's chairman. Gardenhire says he intends to vote no on the legislation. We're not sure where Watson stands. House Finance Committee members also are expected to take up the bill Tuesday, and legislative observers have told Chattanooga Times Free Press reporter Andy Sher that bill already was facing a potentially tight vote. Patsy Hazlewood, R-Signal Mountain, is vice chairman of the House panel.

We hope the legislation receives a resounding no vote. The bill's talking point — giving low-income parents and children "more choice" in education — may sound good on the surface, but it really is just lipstick (and school welfare money) to the middle and upper-middle class.

The governor announced his ESA proposal in his first State of the State address in March. Now he's asking lawmakers to approve a program which would spend up to $125 million in state and local taxpayer dollars by year 5. The proposal was billed as help for "low-income" parents living in a school district with at least three schools falling into the state's bottom 10% to send their children to private schools or for home schooling.

Here's the catch: The students wouldn't actually have to be zoned to attend a low-performing school, and eligibility would be based on double the family income to qualify for the federal free lunch program. In other words, even a middle-income Signal Mountain or Hixson family of four with a $65,260-a-year income could take that average ESA award of $7,300 per student and apply it to a McCallie or GPS or Chattanooga Christian school education — or to home schooling.

That's hardly the bee's knees of helping "low-income" education in Hamilton County, and probably not in other counties where it would apply: Knox, Shelby, Metro Davidson and Jackson/Madison County school districts.

In fact, in Hamilton County we already have a tremendous education gap and recently have enacted no fewer than 60 manners of school "choice" (including more than a dozen magnet schools and 25 new Future Ready Institutes). If passed, Lee's ESA plan seems almost certain to have the unintended — at least we hope it's unintended — consequence of decreasing social and economic diversity of schools. That social and economic diversity is something education leaders have long said is crucial to closing learning gaps.

And that diversity is, narrowly in part, why Gardenhire is a sure no vote on Lee's proposal. The Lee administration amended the ESA bill to keep undocumented immigrant students out of the ESA program, and Gardenhire has long been a proponent of making sure immigrants get the education our laws say they are supposed to get. Gardenhire has unsuccessfully fought to let undocumented immigrant children living in Tennessee pay in-state tuition rates to attend public colleges if they are in the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

Gardenhire said a second reason he opposes the legislation is the effort he, Watson and Rep. Mike Carter, R-Ooltewah, went to a few years ago to help Hamilton County schools maintain control over the county's lowest-performing priority schools by negotiating a hybrid plan with the state — the Partnership Network.

While the governor has said his ESA proposal would be funded with new money and not take funds "away" from the public schools, the fact remains that this $125 million in new money over five years could be better spent on education in our public schools.

This legislation isn't really aimed at teaching economically disadvantaged children in private and home schools. It seems aimed instead at siphoning 15,000 to 30,000 middle-income children out of public schools — children who already have plenty of other advantages.

Our lawmakers should say no thank you to this proposal.

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