Given all that's being done to raise the public education bar in Tennessee, it's hard to fathom why the state Senate has approved a bill to let low-income students use public school funds to pay for private school tuition.
Even more unfathomable is why the legislation would single out Knox County as one of four in the state whose school systems would be required to fork over local taxpayer dollars to parents who opt to send their kid(s) to private, mostly church-related schools.
In addition to implementing the state's more rigorous K-12 curriculum and high school graduation standards, Knox County schools have probably gone further than any other in the state in adopting specialized supports for disadvantaged, low-performing students.
Kindergarten and first-grade intervention programs along with an Excellence in Literacy program for middle-schoolers are all aimed at getting and keeping challenged youngsters reading at grade level. Project GRAD and TAP have greatly strengthened the instruction at challenged inner-city schools, as have themed "academies" at the high school level.
While Knoxville has many fine private schools, none of them to the best of my knowledge offers anything remotely resembling this array of targeted interventions and incentives to enhanced performance.
When the legislation dubbed the Equal Opportunity Scholarship Act passed the state Senate by an 18-10 vote in late April, it appeared to be on a fast track toward enactment. Fortunately, the House Education Committee last week slowed it down for what its chairman Rep. Richard Montgomery of Sevierville termed a summer study. "I'm not sure of the impact of doing this, so right now I think we need to study this," he said. But it's almost certain to come back up next year.
Under the Senate-approved bill, any public school student who qualifies for free or reduced-price lunch would be eligible for a private school tuition voucher.
In plumping for the bill, Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey posed the question, "Why shouldn't they have that opportunity? People who have means can do it today. It's almost discriminatory in my view that people who don't have the means won't have the opportunity." Yet no one in the Tri-Cities area from which Ramsey emanates would get it. That's because eligibility for the scholarships, or vouchers as they are more commonly known, is limited to students from Davidson, Hamilton, Knox, and Shelby—the state's four largest systems.
The primary impetus for the bill and its sponsor Sen. Brian Kelsey come from Shelby County, where the troubled Memphis city school system is on the verge of being assimilated into the county system. Fear of the effects of absorbing the city's heavily black school population is begetting white fright in the suburbs, and the voucher bill could turn that into flight from Shelby County public schools.
The money to pay for the vouchers would be drawn from the taxpayer-funded public school budget in each of the affected districts. The amount of vouchers would be set at 50 percent of each district's per student expenditures, which would make it worth $5,400 in Shelby County, and $4,300 in Knox County.
Kelsey claims that, "In every state where this [a voucher program] has been enacted, we've seen that injecting choice and competition leads to more efficiency both in the parochial and independent schools and also in the public schools."
In fact, similar voucher programs exist in only a handful of U.S. cities (Cleveland, Milwaukee, New Orleans, and Washington), and studies that attempt to assess student benefits show mixed results.
A $4,300 voucher is considerably less than tuitions at the local private schools I canvassed in a Web search. These range from a little under $6,000 at center-city schools such as First Lutheran and Berean Christian to well upwards of $10,000 at elite suburban schools such as Webb and Episcopal School of Knoxville.
So unless a bunch of cut-rate schools spring up, perhaps there wouldn't be much initial uptake for the vouchers. But Knox school board chairwoman Indya Kincannon worries that will lead to increasing the cash amount of the vouchers and diverting yet more funding from the public schools.
What concerns her even more is lack of private school accountability for the public funding they receive. "There's zero accountability for their teacher qualifications, zero authority over their curriculum," she asserts. Indeed, where church-related schools are concerned, both the state and local boards of education are prohibited by state law from regulating the selection of faculty or textbooks or the establishment of a curriculum.
The state does require private schools to be accredited, most of them by either the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools or the Tennessee Association of Christian Schools. I have no reason to doubt that most of them offer quality instruction, just not for kids who are most in need of special help.
Kelsey also contends that "public schools get a windfall of the other half of public funding they keep for students they no longer have to teach." To which Knox County School Superintendent Jim McIntyre responds, "It's not about the money. It's about the kids."