School board hears about vouchers

Thursday, February 28, 2019

Bedford County Board of Education discussed at its recent meeting how some feel Gov. Bill Lee's support of education privatization could undermine the public sector, particularly if legislation is passed approving vouchers or education savings accounts.

Much of the discussion was from a report on Day on the Hill, or "Conquer the Hill," as it's sometimes known. The two-day event, sponsored by Tennessee School Boards Association, is held annually to discuss education-related issues at the state level.

TSBA does not invite legislators to attend its sessions, but sets aside time for school boards to meet with state representatives. There is also the chance for boards to attend education committee meetings.

Bedford County School Board member Diane Neeley, who has many years of service with TSBA, attended the meeting with several others in February. Neeley represents the Liberty School district and is also a member of the All Tennessee School Board.

Neeley said TSBA fully opposes publically-funded vouchers and ESAs. She said such programs create more problems and take away tax dollars from public schools, many which are already underfunded.

"In other states, where this has happened, there's been no oversight," Neeley said. "The money has not been used properly for the students' education."

Revolving door

Neeley said such publicly-funded programs have been also known to create sort of a revolving door education system. She said when students leave public education for the private sector, but for whatever reason return to public education, they are most of the time behind in their studies.

The academic achievement indicator used by Tennessee Department of Education measures the percentage of students performing on grade level on state assessments as well as the improvement in this percentage from one year to the next. A student is considered on grade level if he or she scores on track or masters state exams, known as TNReady or TCAP.

"Four or five years into this, when they [parents] realized this is not going to work, you have an influx of students trying to come back into the public system...not at their grade level," said Neeley. "We're going to have to figure out how to remediate those students back to where they should be, which would put a huge burden back on us."

ESAs, which are usually approved in the form of certificates or scholarships, have become the latest trend in publicly subsidized private school education. Also known as personal learning scholarship accounts, ESAs have would pay parents all or a large portion of funds the state would otherwise have spent to educate their children, that is, should they choose the private sector.

Scholarships or savings accounts?

Arizona, one state using such education accounts, funds with state tax dollars, but students have to qualify. With such accounts or certificates, parents can seek a range of alternative educational services, such as private school or home-based education, states Arizona Department of Education.

Several surrounding states like Florida support what is called school choice. Many education systems have approved such programs to assist parents who do not have access to public schools in their districts.

Neeley said most state legislatures approving ESAs have earmarked them to be used for special education. She believes that very few use the funds right now.

"What the push will be for," she explained, "is anybody could come along and decide they don't want their child in public education . . . dollars fall into an account which the parent has control over."

Legislation can die

School board member Glenn Forsee, who also attended Day on the Hill, complimented Ben Torres, TSBA annual meeting presenter and director of government relations, on hosting a meeting of great clarity. He said, no doubt, TSBA is about the business of education during Day on the Hill.

Forsee said just because a bill is called, that doesn't mean it will make it to the legislative floor to be passed. He advised that education bills in particular simply die in committee.

"Ben and his team really help bring clarity to people up on the Hill . . . what is a realistic bill," said Forsee. "It's always a wait and see game. It's called, politics."