Let's Not Do It: Killing Vouchers a Good Idea, But Not Because of Muslim Schools

It appears that school vouchers are dead for this year as we head into the final week of the legislative session. That's a good thing. But the school voucher movement stalled for the wrong reasons.

Gov. Bill Haslam's voucher plan, developed by his education department task force, was focused on failing schools in poor neighborhoods and limited to 5,000. It was in danger of being amended to allow vouchers pretty much everywhere and middle-class parents would have been able to get them. Citing the likelihood of the program being amended away from the administration's careful structuring, Haslam pulled the bill for this year.

When the voucher plan comes back, and it will, we need to understand why it's a bad idea.

Here we go again. The lottery income comes disproportionately from low-income people buying tickets. The merit-based Hope Scholarships often go to the children of middle-class parents who could likely figure out how to handle their child's tuition. But the poor subsidize the more affluent.

If you allow vouchers everywhere, you are setting up a system where parents can take taxpayer-funded vouchers and subsidize the tuition they are paying at places like Battleground Academy, Webb, or Catholic High. The vouchers wouldn't cover the whole cost, just as the Hope scholarship doesn't cover all the cost of higher education, but it's a nice subsidy.

Meanwhile, where are the elite private schools located in poor neighborhoods, who would take poor kids with vouchers and turn them into scholars? If there aren't excellent schools, then why take the children and the taxpayer's money from the local school?

The inequities of geography and income are major flaws in the school voucher movement.

But aside from Haslam's fight with senators over the expansion, votes were beginning to melt away in the House for another reason. It finally occurred to the legislators that if you give parents in inner-city Memphis or Nashville a voucher, they may spend it at a Muslim school. They have so far been stumped: How do you allow tax money to flow to a Catholic school, yet keep it from going to a Muslim school?

The prospect of county school funds being diverted to subsidize expensive-private-school parents flies in the face of Haslam's initiatives to rescue failing schools, most of them in Memphis.

Haslam has taken control of the Memphis school system. He has been joined by Bill Gates and other well-to-do business people to spend money and try and raise standards. It has become obvious over the years that Memphis schools were not going to get better without drastic action.

The problem is that when you create programs, special schools, or change tenure requirements, it is hard to attack the problems in Memphis without affecting school systems across the state.

There is a proposal, still being debated at this writing, to set up a state board that can authorize charter schools. The board could override a local school board that has turned one down. It is true that school boards have been reluctant to authorize charter schools, and the state proposes an end-run around a local veto.

You have some control over your local school board and you can make your feelings known at a meeting or at the ballot box. You will have no say in a state board of people appointed by the governor and legislative leaders who can approve as many charter schools as they like.

What I have never understood is why a charter school can help children in a poor neighborhood better than the local school system. Why can't whatever special rules, programs, or methods used by a charter school simply be implemented in the local public school? Is there some secret magic that charter schools possess unknown to the rest of us?

Memphis and Nashville have big problems in their schools. Knox County has a wonderful school system with a couple of problem areas. Let the state take over in Memphis or Nashville if they must. But let's let Knox County runs its own business.