By Jill Penley
Do school vouchers raise test scores or lower them? Do they help or hurt students over the long term? Do they damage public schools or push them to improve?
Since the Tennessee School Voucher legislation passing in the House last week, only time will tell.
Working its way through the state legislature, the voucher bill is causing quite a stir as it is said to provide state funds for parents to send their children to private schools.
Commonly known as school vouchers or Education Savings Accounts, ESA is supported by Governor Bill Lee. Under the bill, parents would be allowed to withdraw their children from public schools and receive a deposit of public funds of up to $7,300 into government-authorized accounts. The money could be used to cover everything from private school tuition and tutoring to homeschool materials and online learning programs. It is expected to cost Tennesseans $25 million for five years for a total of $125 million.
According to Dr. Mischelle Simcox, Johnson County Director of Schools, the school voucher legislation will not impact Johnson County as it is currently written. “It will only impact the four largest counties in Tennessee,” explained Simcox. “However, I am very disappointed that this legislation has passed in the House. Anything that takes money away from public schools is a disservice to our students.”
After a brief deadlock, the House voted 50-48 in favor of House Bill 939. The state Senate followed suit Thursday morning passing the governor’s controversial voucher proposal 20-13 but limiting the voucher program to just the metro Nashville area and Shelby County.
Proponents of school vouchers say that parents should have the right to choose their children’s education and many argue that vouchers create a free marketplace, which could lead to better student performance. For some, it is considered an innovative option for children who are being failed by the public school system.
Opponents say that vouchers violate the separation of church and state; that vouchers financially harm already-struggling public schools; that vouchers disadvantage special needs students; and that vouchers lead to worse academic performance.
Also, vouchers do not always cover the full costs involved in a transfer. Many voucher payments fail to fully cover the total cost of tuition, much-less transportation costs, mandatory fees, books, uniforms, and school supplies.
“Vouchers have not succeeded in any other state,” stated Tennessee Democratic Party Chair Mary Mancini. “To have them in Tennessee is a travesty and illustrates that Republicans are willing to abandon the absolute duty our government has to ensure a high-quality public education for every child in Tennessee.”
Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee campaigned on the issue in his successful 2018 race for governor, and told reporters after the Senate vote, “I’m very encouraged today. I certainly believe that today was a historic day given that the House and Senate have never before both passed an education savings accounts bill. Mostly for me, it’s an important day for the children of Tennessee.”
The program would be limited to 5,000 students in the first year, increasing by up to 2,500 students annually. The House and Senate bills will have to be resolved in a conference committee before going to the governor’s desk.