WEATHERS: Here we go again with school vouchers . . .

TSD Education Columnist Curtis Weathers weighs in on three proposed plans to offer school choice in Tennessee

0
703

Earlier this year, I listed five issues related to public education we should watch closely as they unfold in 2024.  One of those issues was school vouchers.  As expected, this issue is heating up here in Tennessee, and the implications are enormous.  

To get you caught up, multiple plans are now on the table.  

TSD education columnist Curtis Weathers

Remember, school voucher programs, also known as Education Savings Accounts or Opportunity Scholarships, are designed to provide students with public funds to attend private schools. These programs are often controversial, with proponents arguing that they increase school choice and improve educational outcomes, while critics claim they divert resources from public schools and may not lead to better academic results.

That being said, one of the key arguments supporting vouchers is that they provide an opportunity for families whose children typically would be assigned to high-poverty, low-performing public schools in their neighborhood to send their children to private schools that would provide them with a better educational experience.   

Opponents argue that vouchers drain taxpayer funds from already underfunded schools in urban communities in ways that further undercut the abilities of traditional public schools to provide their students with a high-quality education.

Don’t get me wrong, I agree with the overall premise of school vouchers.  Students and families deserve better school choices than they have now.  However, the means by which one makes “choice” available should be scrutinized carefully.  

Here in Tennessee, three proposals are on the table.

The Governor’s $141.5 million proposal would offer taxpayer-funded grants to 20,000 students to attend private schools of their choice without any annual TCAP testing or other state-monitored accountability measures for participating students.  

The plan would offer $7,075 in public funds to 20,000 students to attend a private, independent school of their choice, or if they are not interested in a private school, they can use the money to pay for homeschooling. Half of the 20,000 vouchers will be set aside for low-income students and those with disabilities.

In 2025, all public school students will be eligible for this support, regardless of income. 

The Senate’s plan focuses on both private and public school choices, allowing students to use vouchers to attend public schools outside their district. It sets aside half of the program’s initial 20,000 spots for students eligible for the state’s existing voucher programs and families who make up to 300 percent of the federal poverty level. It also requires testing for voucher recipients in grades 3-11.

The House plan opens voucher eligibility to more affluent families faster. It does not earmark half the initial seats for lower-income families. It also creates a mechanism to increase the number of vouchers funded by the state eventually.

There is fierce opposition to all of these plans; it is important to note that the potential benefits and drawbacks of voucher programs are still being debated.  And the research, quite frankly, is divided.  

Studies show that academic outcomes for voucher students are mixed when it comes to students’ test scores.  So, just because your child attends a private school supported by vouchers doesn’t automatically mean their academic performance is going to improve dramatically.

People have the misconception that all private schools have high-quality teachers and students who perform at the highest levels. Not so!  Not all private schools are quality schools.  

In the ideal world, school vouchers make sense for a lot of families in communities with an excess of low-performing schools, i.e., Memphis.  

At this point, however, far too many questions still need to be answered to make a fair evaluation. The Governor has a bill, the Senate has a bill, the House has a bill, and none of them address some of the questions that are fundamental to a quality voucher program. For example: 

  • How will the state monitor the quality, equity, and access in schools that accept voucher students? 
  • How will the Department of Education and other policymakers assess the impact of vouchers on public school performance and funding?
  • How will the state track and report the performance of students and schools that are accepting voucher applicants?  
  • Do these plans ensure that all parents have an equal opportunity to consider voucher options, apply, and enroll in these schools?

The most disappointing aspect of this entire process is that these questions (and many more), which are fair and reasonable, should have been both considered and answered months ago.

At this stage, it is difficult to assess what the public knows and understands about school vouchers in Tennessee.  How will information about the state’s final plan be disseminated?  What are the enrollment and participation criteria? What transportation arrangements, if any, are being made? 

While extensive research on school voucher programs exists, the results are mixed. Some studies suggest modest positive impacts on student achievement, while others show little effect or even negative outcomes. The evidence regarding their overall effectiveness is not yet conclusive.

The school voucher program in Tennessee will have casualties; urban school systems will indeed feel the pain that is sure to come. I truly just hope the benefits ultimately outweigh the losses.