Vouchers, A Tight Budget And Accountability

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Not many people are talking about how a voucher system will effect rural schools in Tennessee. There are not very many private schools outside of urban areas, and so when tonight we will hear Gov. Bill Haslam talk about his voucher initiative. Where is that money going to go in every county?

This is a question rural legislators should be paying particular attention to, what is the needs of their district when it comes to education.

In an article from 2011, Pennsylvania addressed the same questions that Tennessee is facing today.

First, as the governor and nearly every local lawmaker says, the state is in financial trouble. The governor’s proposed budget slashes funding for many worthwhile programs, and offers up huge cuts for public education at all levels. We can’t afford to keep spending like we have been, Corbett and others have argued. If that’s the case, how can we now afford to create a new program that conservative estimates say will cost several hundred million dollars a year? If that kind of money is laying around, why can’t we restore some funding for public schools and universities? The simple answer is that the money isn’t there, and lawmakers would have to find other programs to pull the money from.
Our second problem is the lack of accountability and the fact that our tax dollars would be handed over to private, many for-profit, schools that don’t have to answer to anyone. They can hire whomever they want, teach whatever they want, and in the end, student achievement is beyond the purvey of the Department of Education.
Public schools are accountable to the state Department of Education, and to the local school boards. Private schools are…well…private. They have voluntary accreditations, but in the end, they are accountable only to the people who put up the money to own them.

By last fall, GOP Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett had a huge mess on his hands in Philadelphia.

Want to see a public school system in its death throes? Look no further than Philadelphia. There, the school district is facing end times, with teachers, parents and students staring into the abyss created by a state intent on destroying public education.

On Thursday the city of Philadelphia announced that it would be borrowing $50 million to give the district, just so it can open schools as planned on Sept. 9, after Superintendent William Hite threatened to keep the doors closed without a cash infusion. The schools may open without counselors, administrative staff, noon aids, nurses, librarians or even pens and paper, but hey, kids will have a place to go and sit.

The $50 million fix is just the latest band-aid for a district that is beginning to resemble a rotting bike tube, covered in old patches applied to keep it functioning just a little while longer. At some point, the entire system fails.

Things have gotten so bad that at least one school has asked parents to chip in $613 per student just so they can open with adequate services, which, if it becomes the norm, effectively defeats the purpose of equitable public education, and is entirely unreasonable to expect from the city’s poorer neighborhoods.

The voucher debate has been relegated to urban areas leaving rural realities basically invisible. The bottom line is if vouchers are introduced, small struggling school districts will financially get hammered. The loss of even a baker’s dozen handful of students could cost that school millions they can’t afford to lose.

So it is fair to ask, what is the plan for every school in the state and not just the ones that will be mentioned in the news cycle?

The Tennessean has a story today on how school voucher PACs have already spent close to a quarter of a million dollars in Tennessee ahead of this year’s election.

And on a final note, Tennessee Education Report has interviewed Speaker Beth Harwell who addressed vouchers.

2) If a voucher program is implemented, would you consider independent funding of the voucher students, i.e. funding their tuition through new state funding rather than by redirecting BEP and local funds that would have gone to the LEA?  If the voucher program is limited, as Governor Haslam would like, this could be a relatively inexpensive way to test whether vouchers can raise student achievement without penalizing LEAs for the experiment.

I want everyone’s voice to be heard throughout the process, and welcome all ideas. However, we are already anticipating a tight budget due to revenue shortfalls, so a new funding source may not be possible at this at this time.

Once again, what is the plan?

As Brandon discussed last week, there needs to be a conversation on the facts of education reform. We don’t want to be another Pennsylvania.




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