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OPINION: Risky, unproven vouchers harm public education

Posted on Wednesday, March 20, 2013 at 2:38 pm

State Rep. Joe Pitts (D-Clarksville) said it best last week when he stated, “The very definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over, but expecting a different result. I believe the bill before us repeats the same mistakes we are currently making in our education policy.”

This legislative session is full of public education “reform” bills that do significantly more harm than good for our students. There are a number of bills Rep. Pitts could have been talking about, but this day happened to be about the private school voucher bill (HB 0190), or the so-called “Tennessee Choice and Opportunity Scholarship Act.”

The fact that the bill gives taxpayer dollars to private entities should be a huge red flag, but even worse is the proposal’s intent to leave many students behind.

The bill allows private entities to decide which students are admitted with the “choice and opportunity” voucher, when in fact all students in Tennessee deserve great public schools. Diverting public money to private entities strips our public schools of the funds needed to provide a quality education for every child.

The Tennessee constitution requires the General Assembly to “provide for the maintenance, support and eligibility standards of a system of free public schools,” yet many legislators’ priority seems to be the maintenance and support of private enterprise.

Tennessee already ranks 43rd in the nation for government funding per student. Instead of giving money to vouchers and other privatization schemes, why not provide adequate funding for our public schools as required in our state constitution?

Public school teachers are working miracles in their classrooms every day. Tennessee public schools have among the top graduation rates in the country and, at the same time, one of the lowest rates of funding per student. Imagine what educators could do with the proper resources and support from our elected officials.

A critical flaw in this legislation is the lack of proper oversight.

Tennessee’s nationally recognized education standards and measures for accountability do not apply to private programs. This includes public disclosure of teacher licensure, budgets and student achievement. Evidence from other states shows school voucher programs waste taxpayer money by supporting substandard and unaccredited programs.

No credible study or research has ever proven the effectiveness of school vouchers or demonstrated any sustained improvement in student achievement over public schools. In the more than 50 years since school vouchers were first proposed, the concept remains controversial, unproven and unpopular.

On behalf of the more than 46,000 educators the Tennessee Education Association represents, I urge you to join us in our fight to defeat this damaging legislation.

It is time to stop the insanity and start actively supporting Tennessee’s public schools.

 

—By GERA SUMMERFIELD (Gera Summerford is a high school math teacher in Sevier County who currently serves as president of the Tennessee Education Association. TEA is the state’s largest professional organization representing more than 46,000 elementary and secondary teachers, school administrators, education support professionals, higher education faculty, and students preparing to become teachers.)