Sohn: Gov. Lee's school voucher plan needs answers

Sohn: Gov. Lee's school voucher plan needs answers

March 27th, 2019 by Pam Sohn in Opinion Times

Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Gov. Bill Lee smiles as he talks about his school voucher plan at the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce on Friday.

Photo by C.B. Schmelter

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee last week pitched his controversial school voucher proposal to the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce, doubling down on his plan and calling it important for Chattanooga, despite "a lot of misunderstanding about it."

"I encourage you to look deeper," he told his audience of about 150 people.

The issues are age old: Teaching children and paying for it.

Lee wants to provide low-income parents of students in low-performing schools an educational savings account that could be put toward paying for private school tuition or homeschooling, as well as tutoring and school supplies.

It's a new twist on a proposal that traditionally has been seen by educators and many parents as a siphon of money away from public schools. Lee, however, said the proposal, now before the state Legislature, would strengthen public school funding.

When money goes with a child who qualifies for an educational savings account — on average $7,300 to pay for approved expenses — those funds are replaced in the public school system the student left, the governor told Chattanooga Chamber members. Thanks to Tennessee's current fiscal surplus, public schools may lose students, but not state funding.

Enrollment in the pilot program would be capped at 5,000 school-age children in the Hamilton, Davidson, Knox, Jackson-Madison and Shelby county school systems, as well as the state-run Achievement School District in the first year (out of 1 million students statewide). Lee expects it could grow to 15,000 by year five and then increase by 1,000 students a year. The expected cost to taxpayers is $125 million in its first five years.

One way to look at this is that it's an innovative $125 million for teaching economically disadvantaged children at home or in private schools.

Another way to look at it is that while public schools haven't lost that $125 million, they could be getting an additional $125 million.

There are plenty of questions that don't yet seem to be answered:

' How is "low-income" defined, and might an unintended consequence be to decrease the social and economic diversity of schools — something education leaders have long said is crucial to closing learning gaps?

' When $7,300 doesn't pay for tuition at the McCallies or Notre Dames or Chattanooga Christian Schools, will the private schools pony up their scholarship money or waive the remaining unpaid tuition?

' Who will police this program to ensure youngsters are in fact in school or adequately homeschooled? How much of our $125 million-surplus will be spent on that policing versus on education?

The policing matter, and its cost, is not a minor question — especially for home-schooling.

In the past year, news outlets have reported two child abuse cases in home-school families in South Georgia and in Monroe County, Tennessee.

In Georgia, two siblings who had been pulled out of public school to be homeschooled several years ago were last seen alive in 2016 and found buried behind their family's house last December.

In Madisonville around Christmas, a 14-year-old girl revealed to an online gaming friend that she'd been abused by her adoptive father for years. The fellow gamer encouraged her to video the abuse, which she did. In January, she ran away with the gamer, who drove from Wisconsin to pick her up. According to court documents filed by the gamer's attorneys and reported by in Knoxville, the girl and the gamer mailed the video of the assault to the FBI office in St. Louis, Missouri. Authorities discovered the girl hiding in the basement of the gamer's mother. Her adoptive father was charged with rape. (The gamer also was charged with sexual exploitation of a child.)

Cheryl Fields-Smith, a University of Georgia professor who studies homeschooling, told the Savannah Morning News last month that there generally is little or no accountability in home-schooling. Reporting requirements for Georgia parents who homeschool their children are simple: Once a year, tell the state the child's name, age and address. Even a phone number is optional.

"If I'm a parent and my child is causing trouble and I don't want to deal with it anymore, all I have to do is send in that [online homeschooling] form," she said.

State law does require parents who homeschool to have a high school diploma or GED; teach math, English, science, social studies and reading; subject students to standardized testing every three years; teach at last 4.5 hours a day for 180 days a year; and write an annual progress report. But evidence of meeting those standards does not have to be submitted to anyone, and no one checks to see if it's done. Failing to follow the requirements is a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $100.

We believe most home-schooling is good and well-intentioned.

And we think Gov. Lee's proposal — especially the private school voucher part of it — could help some parents and students. But not until many of these and other questions are fully answered and debated.

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