Disagreement Runs Deep Over School Vouchers

The philosophical lines on school vouchers are so distinct and the passions on both sides so pronounced it probably shouldn’t be surprising that even guns in bars crept into the debate on a voucher bill Tuesday in a Tennessee legislative committee.

House Bill 388, sponsored by state Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, would provide scholarships and school choice for low-income students in the state’s four largest counties. It was the focus of considerable discussion in the House Education Subcommittee. The issue drew familiar themes of rhetoric, but it was flustered Speaker Emeritus Jimmy Naifeh, D-Covington, who brought guns into the conversation.

Naifeh, no supporter of vouchers, told the subcommittee he had read that 65-70 percent of the people in Tennessee are opposed to vouchers.

“I know that doesn’t mean anything to those that are for vouchers, because a larger percentage of people in this state were against guns in bars also, but that didn’t seem to matter, so I guess this doesn’t seem to matter either,” Naifeh said.

Subcommittee Chairman Joey Hensley, R-Hohenwald, asked Naifeh to stay on topic. But Naifeh wasn’t holding back on his recent reading.

“I have also read where private schools are really hoping this passes, because enough of them are in financial trouble, and this may be somewhat of a bailout for them,” Naifeh said.

Dunn’s bill won’t go anywhere until the Legislature reconvenes in January, and Tuesday’s discussion was only for study, but he is prepared to bring the voucher bill up next year, and the debate figures to be just as passionate when the action goes live.

Dunn’s bill, called the Equal Opportunity Scholarship Act, would give low-income students vouchers — or scholarships as they are called — to attend another school in their district. The opportunity would apply only in the state’s four largest counties — Davidson, Shelby, Knox and Hamilton. Advocates for vouchers see it as an innovative way to help educate children who would like an alternative to their current school. Opponents see it as taking money from public schools and subsidizing private schools.

Metro Nashville Schools Director Jesse Register, representing the school boards in those heavily populated counties, spoke in strong opposition to the bill. Register told lawmakers he supported the reforms recently passed by the General Assembly but he flatly opposed school vouchers.

“Vouchers have been around a long time,” Register said. “There is simply no evidence that private school vouchers work.”

Dr. Kenneth Whalum Jr., an at-large member of the Shelby County Board of Education, testified by speakerphone to the subcommittee, advocating vouchers. The Shelby board recently passed a resolution opposing a voucher bill, but Whalum said he will not sign the resolution.

“One reason is I am tired of watching as poor children across our state are continually denied high-quality education because of the behemoth administrative bureaucracy that does more to perpetuate the system than to educate children,” Whalum told the subcommittee. “I assure you the parents I represent would jump at the chance to allow the kids to just have a chance, just have an opportunity at a quality education.”

Whalum said studies opposing school choice vouchers are “inconclusive, at best.”

Rep. Richard Montgomery, R-Sevierville, chairman of the full House Education Committee, wasn’t ready to commit to vouchers.

“I personally am going to be very, very reluctant to support a program like this until we get every bit of information we can possibly get, look at it, evaluate it, and see what the pros and cons are,” Montgomery said. Montgomery had expressed similar discomfort when the bill was considered by the subcommittee in the last session.

The subcommittee also heard from John Husted, secretary of state of Ohio, who was a legislative leader in enacting that state’s EdChoice voucher system. Husted appeared via teleconference.

“I have great respect for what you’re all going through,” Husted told the Tennessee lawmakers. “I was at the beginning of school choice in Ohio, and I know a lot of people question your motives, your motivations, whether you’re a proponent or an opponent.”

Dunn asked his colleagues to consider the way higher education works, where students and their families get to choose the college of their choice and how much better the nation’s colleges stack up in performance when compared to its K-12 schools. Dunn sees that as a strong argument for school choice in the lower grades.

A recent Middle Tennessee State University poll found that West Tennesseans believe their local schools are worse than the state norm, while those in Middle and East Tennessee believe their schools are better than the norm.

  • TC

    “’Vouchers have been around a long time,’ Register said. “There is simply no evidence that private school vouchers work.” A more dishonest statement could not be made. This study (A Win-Win Solution: The Empirical Evidence on School Vouchers, http://tnschoolchoice.com/2011/03/school-choice-a-win-win-solution/ ) reviews all available empirical studies on participant effects that use the “gold standard” method of random assignment & all available empirical studies of how voucher programs affect academic achievement in public schools. It shows that vouchers improve outcomes for both participants & public schools & saves money. Further, NO empirical study has ever found that vouchers had a negative impact on student outcomes in public schools. Six empirical studies have been conducted on how the Milwaukee voucher program affects academic outcomes at public schools. All six unanimously find that vouchers improve Milwaukee public schools. Eleven empirical studies have been conducted on how two voucher programs and one tax-credit scholarship program in Florida have affected academic outcomes at public schools. All eleven unanimously find that vouchers have improved Florida public schools. Four studies have been conducted on the impact of voucher programs in other places. Three of these studies find that vouchers improve public schools; one finds that vouchers make no visible difference to public school outcomes. Even if vouchers did not improve test scores for participants and in public schools, there would still be other reasons to implement them. Vouchers put students into schools that graduate more students, earn significantly greater satisfaction from parents, provide better services for disabled students, improve racial integration and students’ civic values, save the public money, and so forth.

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  • Ed Reform

    “Dunn asked his colleagues to consider the way higher education works, where students and their families get to choose the college of their choice and how much better the nation’s colleges stack up in performance when compared to its K-12 schools. Dunn sees that as a strong argument for school choice in the lower grades.”

    Really? How can you compare a small voucher program in a small state dealing with a narrow population in K-12 and say that’s apples to apples compared to a very diverse, complex and large postsecondary system that enrolls all income classes and that spans multiple states?

    And oh by the way, there are plenty of higher education institutions in America that are terrible and that waste lots of taxpayer money and private family contribution money.

    Also,
    1. College bound students don’t get just $5,000 to spend on any college of their choice across the nation and are told, go find the program that works best for you.
    2. To the extent that Pell Grant students and low-income/minority students do go to college, many colleges and universities as the recent for-profit higher ed scandal has pointed out “sell” the idea of their college to students, even stretching the truth, and then fail to deliver a service that’s going to actually make increase the labor market value of those students.

    The same would happen with for-profit vouchers for K-12. Less accountability and a limited supply of private school seats means kids and their parents will get duped. It’s called asymmetric information in economics.

    Believe it or not Rep. Dunn, there’s an inequality of information between low-income and middle-income and high-income families that limits their “rational” choice decisions. I’m not saying low-income families are dumb, not at all, but their access to information is not the same as other families.

    What would happen is that the taxpayer is left with an expensive bill, and a lot of kids are worse off because their “private” education ended up failing them more than their public education would have.