Reform School: Tennessee's Growing Debate Over School Vouchers

The state is quickly becoming a laboratory for education reform. Are school vouchers the next big experiment?

Three weeks ago, on a mild January evening in Nashville, Gov. Bill Haslam gave his third State of the State address at the Capitol. The speech was his longest to date—over 40 minutes—and several pundits also called it his best. But amid the talk of the economy and jobs, technology and health care, one topic overshadowed all the rest: education.

Haslam spent a good third of his speech talking about education—14 minutes, in one reporter's estimate. "Some have said that this administration and General Assembly aren't committed to public education, but that could not be further from the truth," Haslam said, before announcing $51 million in new funding for technology in public schools, and a $22 million new high school for the Tennessee School for the Deaf in Island Home, along with a few other projects.

Then came the news everyone had been expecting.

"Along with strategic investments, we're pursuing real reform in education that is producing results," Haslam said. "This year we're proposing to offer another option for school choice through a program to allow low-income students in our lowest performing schools a chance to receive a better education. …

"I expect this proposal will be hotly debated, but after taking a careful look at the issue and how a program might work in Tennessee, I believe a limited approach that gives more choice to parents and students stuck in difficult situations makes a lot of sense. If we can help our lowest-income students in our lowest-performing schools, why wouldn't we?"

This year we're proposing to offer another option for school choice through a program to allow low-income students in our lowest performing schools a chance to receive a better education.

Haslam did not announce any other details of the so-called "Tennessee Choice and Opportunity Scholarship Act" (including its name)—those came in a press release the next day. But with those few vaguely worded sentences, the governor opened the floodgates in Tennessee to one of the most controversial aspects of the education reform movement: school vouchers.

The bill, HB 190/SB 196, co-sponsored in the House by Rep. Gerald McCormick (R-Chattanooga) and House Education Committee member Rep. Bill Dunn of Knoxville, and in the Senate by Sen. Mark Norris (R-Collierville) and Sen. Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown), has the potential to upend the public school system in Tennessee.

Whether you think that change is for better or for worse—well, that depends on a lot of things. And as the arguments heat up on both sides of the issue in the next few weeks, you can count on hearing even more far-flung rhetoric and out-of-context statistics.

Is the future of Tennessee's children really at stake? Maybe, maybe not.


The evening after the State of the State, a smaller crowd assembled a few blocks from the Capitol in the Renaissance Hotel on Commerce Street. Servers passed around trays of hors d'oeuvres as several members of the House and Senate Education Committees sipped white wine and mingled with lobbyists and concerned parents.

The event was billed as the Nashville kickoff for "National School Choice Week." A similar event in Arizona a couple of days before had included a performance by the Jonas Brothers; Nashville was not so blessed, but the evening's panel did include former WNBA superstar Lisa Leslie and CEO Patrick Byrne.

NSCW bills itself as a nonpartisan awareness group that does not advocate for any legislation or candidates, but it's clearly well funded. Every chair in the ballroom was draped with a bright yellow fleece scarf embroidered with the group's logo—graduation caps flying through the air above the words "National School Choice Week"—and an additional table in the lobby was stacked with more scarves, in case you wanted to take some home to your family.

Being told to wait five years for your school to improve is cold comfort if you're stuck in a really bad school.

Before the panel began its discussion, it aired a short cartoon about school choice co-produced by the Beacon Center of Tennessee, a libertarian think tank, and the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, the leading national advocate for school choice. (The two groups have launched a pro-voucher website,, where you can watch the video yourself.) "It's just like picking a college. Or a grocery store. Or a shopping mall, car, church, job—you name it," the video says.

That's one of the arguments proponents of vouchers like to use a lot—that schools should be just another consumer choice. And maybe that consumer mentality has something to do with's Byrne's outspoken advocacy for vouchers, despite having never been married and having no children himself. (He's the chairman of the board for the Friedman Foundation.) Byrne compared public schools to the Soviet agricultural system and said a market-driven system would breed more educational success.

"The data is incontrovertible that vouchers work," Byrne says.

This statement is partially true—we'll get to that later—but there's a difference between the kind of vouchers Haslam is proposing and the kind of vouchers it seemed like most attendees of the NCSW event want.

Haslam's voucher plan—that is, the legislation as currently written, without any amendments—would only apply to students eligible for free or reduced-price lunches (i.e., an income of $42,643 or less for a family of four) who also happen to attend a school determined to be in the bottom 5 percent of schools in the state. Six of these schools are in Davidson County, six are in Hamilton County, one is in Hardeman County, one is in Knox County, and all the other 69 schools are in Memphis City Schools.

The data is incontrovertible that vouchers work.

"The problem is so immense in Shelby County—well, just Memphis—that we've just run out of resources," says Knoxville's Rep. Harry Brooks, the chair of the House Education Committee. Brooks supports the governor's voucher legislation and says that it will basically have no effect on any school district outside of Memphis.

"[The bill] has more across-the-board support than any other issue dealing with vouchers I've seen," Brooks says.

Brooks was one member of the governor's task force on vouchers, which helped hammer out what the legislation would look like last year. Knox County Board of Education member Indya Kincannon was another, and she's less sanguine than Brooks about the governor's plan.

"I don't think [vouchers] are going to improve academic outcomes for kids, and I think they'll divert attention and money from other reform efforts," Kincannon says. "The role of publicly funded education for kids is to fix everything for all kids, to raise expectations for all kids. … This is something that should be left to private philanthropy—it's not the government's role."

And it's not just Kincannon—the entire Knox County Schools board issued a statement of its opposition to vouchers, saying, in part, "Private schools are not required to serve all students, nor meet Tennessee's nationally recognized standards and accountability measures. Vouchers would therefore diminish equal opportunity and public accountability by channeling public tax dollars to private schools that do not face state equity standards and accountability requirements."

KCS Superintendent Jim McIntyre says he still has a lot of questions about what the legislation would mean, especially when it come to accountability and equity of access. "Should a private school really be able to restrict which voucher students it accepts? When we're talking about utilizing public dollars, that seems like a basic issue of fairness to me," McIntyre says.


That sense of fairness—that's what people on both sides of the issue come back to again and again.

"We're interested in helping low-income students who are stuck in schools getting bad results. … I think leaving poor kids stuck in those schools isn't fair," says Kevin Huffman, the Commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Education. Although the Department of Education has started the Achievement School District specifically to address those same bottom 5 percent of schools, Huffman says only 12 or 13 of the 83 worst schools in the state will be in the ASD by next year.

"Being told to wait five years for your school to improve is cold comfort if you're stuck in a really bad school," Huffman says.

Sarah Moore Greene Elementary is the only school in Knox County in the bottom 5 percent of state schools, but 90 percent of its 654 students are eligible for free or reduced lunch. That means after attending kindergarten at Sarah Moore Greene, the majority of its students could then switch to a private school—and have a private-school education funded until they graduate from high school, regardless of whether their family's income changes or the school moves out of the bottom 5 percent.

(The governor's office confirms that as the bill is written now, students who are zoned for an elementary school in the bottom 5 percent would maintain their scholarship through grade 12 even if their middle or high school was not in the bottom 5 percent. It also ensures that "[o]nce a child receives a scholarship, he or she shall remain eligible in subsequent years [regardless of family income or the zoned school's performance]. Research has indicated that student mobility has a negative impact on academic performance, so there is no value in disrupting a child's educational environment if the child and his or her family are satisfied with the school's performance.")

Of course, not all private schools in Knoxville will accept vouchers—the Webb School, for one, said it will most likely stick with the financial aid system it has in place. And it's unclear whether any parents of Sarah Moore Greene students would be interested in schools like the Stanford Eisenberg Knoxville Jewish Day School or the Islamic Annoor Academy. (It's also unclear as to how many legislators who have voted in favor of anti-Muslim bills like the 2011 ban on Sharia law realize that state tax dollars could be sent to an Islamic school. )

"It probably won't affect us at all," says Miriam Esther Wilhelm, the head of KJDS. "If vouchers are open to everyone, we could possibly grow enrollment … but those are decisions the board would have to make."

The complication with Haslam's voucher proposal is that if a school decides to accept them, it must accept whatever the amount of the voucher is (a state average of $6,182) for the entire cost of the tuition. For schools like Webb, which charges $16,500 in tuition, that's a huge cut. But at other schools, like Grace Christian Academy, which has said it will accept vouchers, tuition is around $6,000, so it's a good deal for them. (It should be noted that if the voucher amount is larger than the school tuition amount, the excess money reverts to the state and the local school district, divided on a percentage basis according to the BEP formula.)

I'm surprised Gov. Haslam has been supportive of this.

The Catholic Diocese of East Tennessee, which charges between $6,275 to $9,900 in tuition in Knoxville and operates 10 schools in the region, says it's interested in accepting vouchers but is waiting to see what the final legislation looks like before making a decision. Other private schools we contacted made similar statements.

Haslam's plan is limited to 5,000 vouchers statewide in the first year, growing to 20,000 by the 2016-2017 school year. If the request for vouchers exceeds the number offered, a lottery will be held to determine who gets to receive one—which, again, goes back to fairness.

Is it really fair that the 10 percent of students zoned for Sarah Moore Greene who aren't living at the federally designated poverty threshold are stuck in a low-performing school? Is it fair that the ones who want to leave have their decision determined by random chance? Is it fair that any private school participating in the voucher program doesn't have to provide any further assistance for special-needs students than what it already offers, meaning the majority of families with special-education students will stay in the public school system?

"It creates a lot more problems than it solves," Kincannon says.


There's one easy way to make vouchers fair, supporters say: Offer them to everyone.

If everyone can get a voucher, regardless of income, regardless of what school he or she is zoned for, the educational system will improve for everyone, they say. If parents start fleeing the public schools in droves—even the good schools—then the schools will be forced to improve themselves to remain competitive. If there aren't enough private schools to take all the fleeing public school students, then more schools will open to fulfill the needs of the market. In short, vouchers for everyone would demonstrate laissez-faire capitalism at its best.

At least, that's how the theory goes. There are 18 voucher programs operating in 12 states and the District of Columbia, but not one of them is a universal program. (Two states, Arizona and Georgia, have universal tax-credit scholarships, which are mostly funded through corporate donations—the businesses get hefty tax credits for donating to the program—but the average scholarship amount hovers under $2,000, which is hardly enough to pay for most private-school tuition.) Several states have vouchers solely for disabled, autistic, or dyslexic students; the rest, like Haslam's plan, are limited to low-income students (although the definition of low-income varies widely).

But proponents of a universal system, like much of the audience at the NCSW event, think there's no reason to not make Tennessee a testing ground. At a legislative briefing at the Knoxville Chamber of Commerce last week, Dunn, who says he has been a fan of school choice for over 20 years, said he is contemplating an amendment to Haslam's bill that would open up vouchers to more students.

"I have told [the school choice lobbyists], bring me 55 votes, and I'll consider expanding the bill," Dunn says.

Newly elected Rep. Roger Kane, another House Education Committee member, also voiced his support for a wider program.

"It gives a parent a sense of choice. It brings it back to the local level. What's more local than family?" Kane says. "I think its time has finally come."

Jeff Reed of the Friedman Foundation says the biggest trend in the past couple of years has been existing voucher programs choosing to expand to allow more students to use them. He says the nation's oldest modern voucher program in Milwaukee has recently expanded to include Racine schools, and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has just announced plans to allow nine more school districts to join. Reed says Ohio is also looking at a dramatic expansion of its program, which is currently limited to students in failing schools.

Reed says the issue with programs like Ohio's—and, by association, Haslam's—is that parents find it really confusing. In the past six years, the number of students using vouchers in Ohio has grown slowly to 17,057, but in Indiana, which two years ago launched a voucher program open to all low-income students, regardless of school, the number is already up to 9,324.

Of course, this is what opponents of vouchers in Tennessee most fear—some limited voucher plan will pass, and as the years go by it will be slowly expanded to kids in every school, kids with middle- and upper-income parents, kids who are already attending private school.

And while you might think all private-school parents would love that, the reality is that many have mixed feelings about it.

Take a parent like Katie Hannah, who admits the tuition for her daughter at Nature's Way Montessori School is "a pretty big sacrifice." (Her other child attends West High school.)

"I have to say that I personally would like it, since I have a daughter in private school," Hannah says. "But I think the problem with that is the people who are able to take advantage of a voucher system are those who need it the least. I think it probably lowers the quality of education overall. … What about the kids who don't get switched? … I think we need to raise the quality of every school and reach those kids who don't have an advocate."


After the State of the State, the Tennessee Education Association president, Gera Summerford, issued a statement opposing Haslam's voucher plan.

"[S]chool voucher programs in other states have wasted taxpayer money by supporting substandard and unaccredited programs due to inadequate oversight. No credible study or research has ever proven the effectiveness of school vouchers or demonstrated any improvement in student achievement over public schools," Summerford said.

Experts in the field disagree.

"That's just plain false," says Patrick Wolf, a professor of education reform at the University of Arkansas. "And it's not only my research that's shown that. … The evidence is out there that these programs can work."

Wolf has conducted extensive research on the voucher programs in Milwaukee and Washington, D.C., and he says that his research, as well as other research in the field, shows that some students who received vouchers clearly benefitted when compared to a control group of their peers who lost the voucher lottery and stayed in the public schools. He says African-American students had the biggest gains, but there is also suggestive evidence of gains in reading among all voucher students and overwhelming evidence that vouchers boost high-school graduation rates, college enrollment, and persisting in college. No gains in math achievement have yet been shown.

The gains aren't dramatic, but they are real. However, Wolf notes that all the gold-standard random assignment studies have only been conducted in school districts with voucher programs, and there have not yet been any rigorous evaluations of the statewide voucher programs.

Wolf also points out that while voucher programs have been sued in several states over their constitutionality, none have yet been found to violate the separation between church and state.

"After all, there are a lot of areas in society where government grants go to religious organizations—soup kitchens, pre-K programs at churches, Pell grants for Christian colleges," Wolf says.

Suzanna Sherry, a professor of law at Vanderbilt University, explains the legal reasoning in an e-mail:

"[T]he U.S. Supreme Court has held that there is no violation of the First Amendment's Establishment Clause as long as the state gives the money [vouchers] to parents, and the parents choose how to use it. They may choose religious or secular schools, but the Court says that the money flowing to religious schools is the result of parents' choice and is therefore not considered state funding of religion," Sherry writes.

Yet even if vouchers can make a difference and are found to be legal, will Haslam's plan help the students who really need them?

At a recent event at Sarah Moore Greene Elementary, many parents didn't have a clue what vouchers were, and very few seemed interested in moving their children out of their neighborhood school, failing or not.

One parent, Terrance Cox, said he might consider it for his fourth-grade daughter but not his first-grade son.

"I think she would strive more [in a private school.] I don't think there's too much here she could strive for academically," Cox says.

Another parent, Ron Davis, expressed concerns about what would happen to his son's school if a lot of people left.

"I think it'd be a good opportunity—as long as they don't have to lay off teachers and go down to 300 students or something," Davis says.

And some parents just don't like private schools, like John and Theresa Bradley, who have two sons at Sarah Moore Greene.

"Private schools—it really takes away from the school. You can only get a certain number of people in private schools," John Bradley says. "I like the interaction here between different types of people."


A couple of weeks ago, Rep. Craig Fitzhugh, the House Minority leader, tweeted a picture of himself in his office, saying, "Doing an interview with @AP about @billhaslam's voucher program. Bumper sticker sums up my feelings." The bumper sticker read, "NO VOUCHERS!" One person tweeted back at Fitzhugh, "why do you hate children?"

That's just a small preview of how the debate will likely unfold over the next few weeks. Both sides will be claiming they're doing what's best for the children, and both sides will be slinging sharp and pointed barbs.

Supporters of Haslam's plan will say 5,000 to 20,000 students out of 961,000 is a minimal percentage of school funding directed elsewhere that could help the most at-risk students. Proponents of a more inclusive voucher plan will say that one's zip code shouldn't determine one's educational future. And opponents will say that trimming any amount of school funding when Tennessee is already in the bottom five in per-pupil spending in the country isn't going to improve anything.

Haslam has prepared his rejoinder to the last argument. In the State of the State, he said, "I've heard the argument that this kind of program will drain resources in the schools that need them the most, but we're focusing resources on those schools. Last year, we committed $38 million over three years to schools in the bottom 5 percent of the state. This year we're adding $9 million more. So we're investing $47 million, over and above annual funding, to those schools to help them improve. Not only are we not draining resources from them, we're giving them additional support."

But if the best and brightest at the worst schools leave, as opponents say will happen, will that extra money make much of a difference?

"The kids most likely to [use vouchers] are not the most high-risk students. It concentrates poverty," Kincannon says. "There are so many proven ways to help at-risk kids, and this isn't one of them. … I'm surprised Gov. Haslam has been supportive of this."

It's also not a given that the majority of parents in Tennessee want school vouchers. A survey by the Friedman Foundation last summer found over 60 percent of people support tax-credit scholarships (61 or 69 percent, depending on the way the question was phrased), and that 59 percent of those polled support vouchers, with only 31 percent of respondents opposed. But a November poll of registered voters in Knox County found 50.2 percent of respondents opposed to vouchers, 31 percent strongly so. (The poll, conducted by Bryant Research, was partially funded by Randy Boyd, a frequent GOP donor who was recently named a "special advisor to the governor for higher education.")

Whatever the voters think, the Knox County legislative delegation seems likely to vote in support of vouchers almost as one—even Democratic Rep. Joe Armstrong is leaning towards a yes vote. Only Rep. Gloria Johnson, a Knox County school teacher, is a sure vote against.

Even if Haslam's plan passes unchanged—and some version of it is likely to pass, given the GOP supermajority in both chambers—the voucher debate is unlikely to end, as proponents push for expansion.

When asked if the Department of Education would support an expanded voucher program, whether open to all low-income students, regardless of school, or even open to all students, Huffman was noncommittal (although he did reject the assertion that his own support of vouchers might be tied to his oldest daughter's enrollment at Harpeth Hall, an elite private girls school in Nashville).

"We like the bill as introduced. We think starting with a program with the highest needs students makes sense. Let's start there, see how it goes, measure it," Huffman says. "[Anything else] would be up to the Legislature. Let's make sure that this is effective and well administered first."