Lenoir City Board of Education voted unanimously Thursday to oppose school voucher legislation working its way through the Tennessee General Assembly.
The bill would provide $25 million for students in low-performing districts to use for private education, allowing 5,000 students to receive about $7,300.
Gov. Bill Lee, during his first State of the State address, said the program provides incentive for schools to improve.
Jeanne Barker, Lenoir City director of schools, disagrees.
“I think there needs to be measures to look at why those schools are not succeeding and focus on the students that are not being successful,” Barker said. “... May be things outside of school structure that is the reason those students are not being successful.”
Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, is in favor of the legislation and hopes to see it pass.
The answer is more than just throwing money at schools, Barker said. She believes many factors contribute to why students may not perform well in some districts, many of which are outside the school, such as home life and socioeconomic status.
“I think it will be pretty close as far as the vote on it in the Senate and House,” McNally said. “I hope we can do it. ... I think (Lee) is definitely on the right track.”
While Lenoir City and Loudon County students would not qualify for vouchers under the bill, Barker believes it is still important to let legislators know the system is opposed.
“The bill in and of itself I feel takes public dollars away from public schools,” she said. “That, to me, can eventually, if not immediately, affect the funding that is available for public schools. One of the things I try to tell my teachers and administrators here is that there’s just one pot of money and it will only go so far. It’s the same thing with the state. … So let’s prioritize it for public funding the things that our Tennessee constitution says it’s supposed to fund, which is public schools.”
Lee tried to dismiss those concerns during his address.
“I know there’s concern that programs like this will take money away from public schools,” he said. “But my (education savings account) plan will invest at least $25 million new dollars in public schools in the first year to fill the gap when a student transfers to another school.”
Barker believes without accountability measures in place at public schools, it is impossible to know the impact private schools have on students transferring in.
She also is concerned the change would provide for students who are already succeeding in lower-performing districts rather than students struggling in the public school setting.
“If they want to look at indeed students that are not being successful and provide them an option, that would be one thing,” Barker said. “What this bill has done is it has been widened to include students who are actually being successful. It’s a faulty process that they’ve set up as to who would qualify. If they truly want to look at students who are not being successful in public schools, that would be a conversation I would welcome.”
Rick Chadwick, Lenoir City BOE chairman, is worried about the impact years down the road.
In Lee’s plan, there would be 2,500 students added to the voucher program each year if demand increases.
“In the future it will affect our school system,” Chadwick said. “They’re taking money away from public schools, bottom line. From Lenoir City Schools. I’m all about Lenoir City and this is huge. If this passes, it might not affect us for two or three years, but down the road it could really impact our budget.”
He also does not believe the voucher program has been shown to work in communities that have tried it.
“That’s what’s so sad about this is our school exceeds,” Chadwick said. “I’m even going to say Loudon County Schools exceeds. Our whole county is doing what everybody in this state ought to be doing. You have to hire great teachers, you have to have a good staff and you have to have a school board that supports that staff.”
McNally asserted such legislation would not have a negative impact on Lenoir City or Loudon County. Instead, he believes it will help students who qualify.
“First of all, I don’t think it will affect them. Second of all, I think it’s pretty hard to say just because you live in a certain zip code you’re going to have to attend a failing school,” McNally said. “Parents that want their children to succeed ought to have some option other than forcing their child into a school that is not doing good. We’ve got a lot of those schools in Shelby County and a significant number in Davidson. … It will be the systems that have failing schools.”
The bill was scheduled to be voted on Tuesday in the Senate’s Finance, Ways and Means Committee after News-Herald presstime. McNally believes it could be pushed back to next week.