We’ve all heard the saying that nothing is permanent but death and taxes. Here in Tennessee, though, there’s another near-constant in the state capital: a push for school vouchers.
House Bill 939 squeaked through the House 50-48 on Tuesday. The “Tennessee Education Savings Account Act” would give eligible parents about $7,300 per child each year to spend on private schools or to cover home-school expenses. The bill, which will be taken up by the Senate today, is a centerpiece of Gov. Bill Lee’s first term as governor.
It’s also a bad idea. For several reasons.
First, the link between low-income student education and private schools is tenuous at best. A 2018 study conducted by Robert C. Pianta, dean of the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education and a professor of education and psychology, and Arya Ansari, a postdoctoral research associate at UVa.’s Center for Advanced Study for Teaching and Learning, found that “despite the frequent and pronounced arguments in favor of the use of vouchers or other mechanisms to support enrollment in private schools as a solution for vulnerable children and families attending local or neighborhood schools, the present study found no evidence that private schools, net of family background (particularly income), are more effective for promoting student success.”
In practice, Lee’s voucher program would not improve the education of low-income students or help low-performing school districts get better. All the voucher system would accomplish would be to provide low-income students the same level of education while crippling already financially strapped school districts.
The potential further erosion of our public schools was what fueled Rep. Bob Ramsey, R-Maryville, to vote no on the bill, saying, “The net effect diminishes support and structure of public schools.”
Another point of objection was raised by State Sen. Art Swann, R-Alcoa, who said would he vote no because the bill could easily be expanded to include every Tennessee school district.
While the initial bill provides exceptions such as a last-minute exemption for Knox County, it’s not much of a leap to imagine a gradual expansion if the voucher program gains state acceptance.
The controversial nature of vouchers explains why the House vote was so close — and it may explain why some legislators who voted for the measure — like Rep. Jerome Moon, R-Maryville — didn’t want to return phone calls or texts requesting a statement.
That’s a shame given Moon’s former occupation as a newspaper publisher. Of this newspaper! And yet he was the only local legislator who dodged us Tuesday.
That secrecy also might explain the extraordinary efforts by supporters of the bill to pressure lawmakers to come to their side.
Ramsey said, “there were some suggestions there might be benefits to our district if we supported the bill. I was repeatedly contacted to join the effort on the side of supporters ... and told it might enhance allocations of funds in the future.”
But cowardly action and creepy strong-arm tactics are not sufficient to answer the question as to whether this voucher program will help Tennessee students.
This bill, we think, has too much potential harm for public school districts while not helping the very students it claims to support.
We urge the state Senate to reject it today.