Ramsey: Education Choice ‘Valid, Valuable, Growing in Popularity’

Op-Ed from Tennessee Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey; August 6, 2012: 

Our Republican majority in the state legislature have reached many of our goals these past two years. I’m very proud of our accomplishments. But there is still much left to do. One example is education reform.

Some might find this surprising. After all, Tennessee won the federal government’s Race to the Top Grant because of our willingness to reform. And reform we have. Tennessee has made truly great strides in education in recent years. Not only have we reformed tenure, we removed the monopoly held by Tennessee’s government employee union over our school boards.

Most recently we have implemented a teacher evaluation system where teachers are reviewed, and thus rewarded, based on their excellence.

We have clearly stayed true to my goal of striving to put a great teacher in every classroom. But there is much more to do.

Earlier this month, I saw a public opinion poll which revealed nearly 60 percent of Tennessee voters support opportunity scholarships (or vouchers as they are sometimes called). These scholarships would allow children who were not blessed to be born wealthy to use the money allocated for their education at a school of their choice.

Governor Bill Haslam currently has a task force hard at work on this issue. They continue to deliberate on how opportunity scholarships can be best implemented in Tennessee. I am eager to review their findings and get to work passing a bill that benefits all of Tennessee.

I was proud when, under the leadership of Sen. Brian Kelsey, the Tennessee Senate passed an opportunity scholarship bill in 2011. Unfortunately, the measure failed in the state House. But whether the bill that ultimately passes both houses ends up looking exactly like the one we passed last year, the important thing to realize is that concept of choice is valid, valuable and growing in popularity.

Many of this state’s schools are failing. By the objective criteria we have at our disposal, we now know there are children in certain counties of our state who are not only not getting the education they deserve — they are getting little, if any, quality education at all.

This is a disturbing realization but it is not one we can easily ignore. As I said, one of my primary goals in public service is to make sure every Tennessee student has a great Tennessee teacher. We can spend all the money we want on grand new school buildings, new computers and the latest in educational software but, at the end of the day, it’s good teachers who make good students.

If children in our failing schools do not believe they have good teachers, who are we to stand in the way of their seeking instruction elsewhere? We cannot continue to make students prisoners of geography. We must apply to education those principles we know work in the economic sphere.

As Republicans, we believe in the free market. We know that competition drives excellence. I believe it is time to infuse those principles, if only in a limited way, into our education system.

Studies have shown opportunity scholarships are successful in boosting graduation rates without draining resources from the public schools. Giving parents a choice and improving public schools can be done simultaneously.

According to a study led by Dr. Patrick Wolf at the University of Arkansas, the District of Columbia’s opportunity scholarship program increased the graduation rate of students who were merely offered vouchers by double-digits. The graduation rate of students that actually used vouchers grew 21%. These are impressive statistics. Coupled with the moral and economic rightness of allowing choice — this is a no brainer.

Tennessee has proved over the past few years that we are a state willing to think boldly when it comes to education reform.

And frankly, we don’t have much choice. Tennessee consistently ranks at the top of the nation’s states in numerous categories. Whatever the measure — be it our low tax rate, our high quality of life or our reputation as the best state in the nation to own and operate a business — Tennessee shines. Our rank among states in education stands in strong contrast. It must be remedied.

Opportunity scholarships would provide hope to the children of this state who most need it. We cannot continue to hover near the bottom of the pack in education. We have taken the first steps in reform — but there is still much left to do.