It sounds like education reform, and on the surface it has a certain kind of logic.
The General Assembly will be taking up a voucher plan this session that would give parents tax money to spend on a private school if they are unhappy with the school their child attends. I don’t know the details of the plan; Gov. Bill Haslam will announce them at some point.
The idea is to provide competition for failing public schools and it usually focuses on schools in poor neighborhoods.
The way voucher plans normally work is that money normally spent on educating children is relayed to parents so they can spend it elsewhere at a private school. Using that specious logic, the money for education belongs to the parents. But it doesn’t.
If you follow the logic to its conclusion, then only the parents of children in school should pay taxes to support public schools. If you don’t have children in school, why should you pay to support them? If don’t have children, or your children have graduated, why should you be paying for someone else’s child to get an education?
We, as a society, have decided that it is a good thing to have an educated populace. We all pay taxes to support schools and we require parents to see that their child is educated either in a public school or through some private arrangement. We believe that we all benefit by having a democracy made up of educated citizens and an economy that benefits from having educated workers.
Even if the money for the vouchers comes from the state rather than local coffers it is still money that is being diverted from public education to private schools.
We use tax money to provide public schools. To decide that a public school is not getting the job done—and we need to pay for students to go elsewhere—is to admit defeat. To decide the school can’t be saved, we are just going to put lifeboats in the parking lot.
Are we looking at starting new private schools to take advantage of all this voucher money? Or are we going to bus urban kids to suburban private schools?
Should a voucher program be approved, what is likely to happen? Is the problem with low test scores that we aren’t providing good schools? Or is the problem that students lack the support at home to be successful? Is the problem truancy? Single parents working long hours and the child unsupervised?
Is it logical that children from these families are going to be transported and placed in a private school with the help of a voucher? Or is it more likely that the good students from an urban school, that have the advantage of a strong family, will move to the private school leaving only the poor (in more ways than one) students in the public school?
Who will operate these private schools and how will they make money? Given the economies of scale in operating a school system, how can you truly determine the amount of the voucher?
Private schools in states with high property taxes, teacher unions, generous pension plans, and high per-pupil expenditures can be successful. You offer a private school with fewer benefits, streamlined staff, and lower expenses and you can make a profit on the “per pupil expenditure” number. In Tennessee’s urban schools, the margin isn’t quite so generous.
You may recall a famous Knoxvillian by the name of Chris Whittle who left his Main Street campus and his failed media company to go out and enter the private-schools business. Do you think you will see any of Whittle’s schools operating in Knoxville? Or will he be in places like Philadelphia?
Education reform? Yes. Vouchers? No.