Analysis: Voucher momentum is growing on Capitol Hill

Sunday, January 20, 2013 at 10:05pm
012113 Vouchers Haslam topper.jpg

(Eric England/SouthComm)


It’s too early to coin a word for the year on Capitol Hill, but it could arguably be vouchers.

Parents, politicians, business interests and everyone in-between should get used to that word, because the term will be on repeat over at least the next few months, if not years.

Vouchers are essentially taxpayer-funded coupons parents can use to send their children to the private or parochial school of their choice for free or on a discount. Tennessee doesn’t offer them yet, but there is momentum on Capitol Hill to change that.

Following a dozen states and the District of Columbia, vocal members of the Republican-led legislature are demanding that the state offer parents these vouchers to take their children out of their local public school and send them elsewhere.

The political arguments around the issue are polarizing.

One extreme insists vouchers — which advocates prefer to call “opportunity scholarships” — would increase competition in the unmotivated public school system by creating a free market where students can figuratively pack their backpack with thousands of dollars worth of taxes.

Parents have already paid into the system and they should spend that money to attend the school of their choice. They also insist vouchers would provide a high-quality education to children whose parents cannot afford to move into a better school zone.

The other side argues vouchers are a recipe for disaster. Parents most likely to jump through the hoops to use a voucher system are the ones who are already most involved in their children’s education, a population of invested moms and dads already in short supply. More involved parents typically have students who are better in school, so vouchers would take both active parents and their promising children out of the public school system, largely segregating the bottom of the barrel students who face the steepest academic challenges. There is also fear that private schools will take that separation to the next step by cherry picking the best students with vouchers. Meanwhile, opponents are adamant vouchers would ultimately hurt the public education system by siphoning money out of already cash-strapped school districts — which still have building and overhead costs — and put those dollars in the hands of private and religious schools in an effort to privatize education.  

Select Republicans in the Tennessee legislature have tripped over themselves for years trying to install an aggressive voucher program. After much hesitance, Gov. Bill Haslam is dictating the terms of such a system by offering what sounds like his own moderate program to the General Assembly this month, although he hasn’t announced what the details will look like. In fact, no one knows what a voucher framework could include because the moving parts in such a system are seemingly endless.

The plan up for negotiation on Capitol Hill is to give vouchers only to poor students from low-performing schools as early as the 2013-14 academic year.

Although the governor has not detailed how poor students’ families must be to qualify, nearly 59 percent of students in Tennessee were eligible for free or reduced-price lunches last school year, a telltale snapshot of the number of low-income students. A typical qualifying family of four would bring in less than $42,643 per year.

In Davidson County, 72 percent of students meet that free or reduced-price lunch threshold, which includes 56,268 students, at least some of which would be eligible for the governor’s voucher program.

If Haslam sticks to focusing his voucher plan on weak schools, several in Davidson County are likely in the mix. The bulk of the state’s worst performers are in Memphis, but are also largely in other urban areas like Nashville. The bottom 5 percent of schools alone include 69 in Memphis, six schools in Nashville, six in the Chattanooga area, one in Knoxville, and another in Whiteville outside Shelby County.

The 10 percent of schools showing the largest disparities between groups — based on factors such as ethnicity, family income, disability and native language — are more scattered across the state. Davidson County includes 13 of the state’s bottom 167 schools.



Whether the governor will want to link vouchers purely to a percentage of the state’s worst schools or factor in those where performance gaps are widest is unknown. Also unknown is how bad a school would have to be for its low-income students there to be eligible for a voucher.

Which schools parents can send their kids to under a voucher program is also up in the air. Davidson County is home to 64 private schools, second only to Memphis’ 91. Some private schools with high tuition rates have indicated they may skip on vouchers — valued at an estimated $8,000 here — in lieu of full tuition in the double digits. A recent survey from the Beacon Center, a libertarian think-tank fond of vouchers, found almost two-thirds of private schools would participate in such a program, although the survey had less than a 40 percent participation rate.

Advocates for vouchers generally agree that there needs to be a mechanism to keep the private schools accountable for producing results with taxpayer money. More than half of schools surveyed said they don’t want to administer the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program, known as the TCAP, although using other tests such as the ACT could be up for negotiation.

These and other issues are all up for debate in the legislature this year. Lawmakers will also have to figure out issues like how the funding structure would work, whether private schools would need accreditation, whether transportation will be provided to vouchered students and how many vouchers would be available.

This is all provided the measure passes. Advocacy groups on both sides of the issue are lining up for the vouchers fight. School boards, superintendents and teachers unions are all opposed to the idea, along with grassroots groups organizing to speak out against the plan.

They’re going up against a Republican-led legislature that benefited heavily from political support from fans of school choice, such as $470,000 in the last two years from StudentsFirst, a group led by controversial education reformer Michelle Rhee, who wants a hand in the details of a Tennessee voucher program.

As much momentum as there appears for vouchers, it might not be a slam dunk. House Speaker Beth Harwell says she’s a big fan of public education and isn’t convinced that vouchers have a place here.

“I think what folks need to realize is this General Assembly and this governor are fully committed to the students. Not systems, not anything else. They’re committed to students and students performing well, and we’re committed to do whatever it takes to make sure that happens,” Harwell told The City Paper. 

Are vouchers how Tennessee should accomplish that? “Well, I’m not sure of that,” she said. “I’m going to let my committee look at it and see what they conclude.”     

36 Comments on this post:

By: boyzmom on 1/21/13 at 8:45

Michelle Rhee and Kevin Huffman are up to no good. Now that they are in bed with Haslam and key legislative leaders, a whole lot of public money is about to be thrown at the private schols with what is likely to be a questionable result. I do not trust any of these so-called leaders to do right by Tennessee's students. Follow the money folks.

By: ChrisMoth on 1/21/13 at 8:46

Great coverage - but I'm still confused.

I thought that kids in the lowest 5% of our schools were being handed off to Chris Barbic ($215K per year) and the Achievement School District, which will hire national Charter school firms to educate our children, bringing them to the "top 25%"

Don't we need to let that have a chance to succeed or fail before we shovel more money into the fire?

The Beacon Group cannot be "Libertarian" as no Libertarian would _ever_ advocate wealth transfer as good governance, and certainly not wealth transfer to parents as compensation for their production of more children. We need look no further than Smithson-Craighead school to know that families in poverty are not reliable selectors of high performing schools for their children. I am thankful that our local Board had the will to shut down this Charter school. Will Voucher-receiving schools be held to a higher standard that Smithson-Craighead? Who will see to that - the Governor's appointed Board?

And, isn't this whole Legislative agenda a supposed response to Nashville's Board not approving Great Hearts? How again does a voucher program for poor kids address the political problem that many affluent families are uncomfortable with local public schools because they serve populations of children in poverty?

Those parents want $25K per year to attend s rigorous institution like MBA or Harpeth Hall, not a $6.5K per year private school that offers a hug and a cookie.

If the Legislature were to commit funding to stronger academics across Tennessee public schools, things might start to make more sense to me.

Until then, I'm still confused - but I'm just one dumb voter, I guess.

Chris Moth, 2020 Overhill Dr

By: Radix on 1/21/13 at 9:16

Great work Michelle Rhee!! Everyone deserves school choice, especially poor kids trapped in bad schools. They paid taxes for education, and should have a say in how that money is spent.

By: pswindle on 1/21/13 at 9:29

The Private Schools can refuse to take the public school children. Harpeth Hall and MBA have already stated that they will not participate in the voucher program. The state is opening itself up for lawsuit after lawsuit. Vouchers and Charter Schools are not the solution. We need to put all our energy and money in Metro's schools because that is where the power lies. We have let Rhee and the Education Secretary come in and try to ram this idea for their own benefit. Haslam does not have the experience to know that he is being led around by the nose.Rhee and Husband have thier children in Harpeth Hall, and that alone will prevent Harpeth Hall from accepting vouchers. What a joke when she said that she was a public school parent. The parents of Harpeth Hall and MBA will not let vocuhers happen at their schools.

By: JeffF on 1/21/13 at 9:36

The argument for keeping the good parents and the good kids in the schools should be applied to other parts of our society. Imagine how much better life would be in the prisons of this state if they did not limit the population to just the bad people. For now on, corrections officials should designate 20-25% of the population of the good, law-abiding people and assign them to "Good Intentions" sentences of 2-10 years where they can be role models to the rest of the penal population.

In about 40-45 years we will have a corrections system that will be the envy of the world, as long as the prison guards are not held to some silly performance based compensation system.

By: Balo on 1/21/13 at 10:05

To paraphrase, it is obvious that the political leaders in this situation are highly intelligent and highly elitist people because no common man would ever reach this conclusion.

By: RWinLA on 1/21/13 at 11:14

There are not enough seats at private and semi-private schools to educate all of our children. Rather than expending scarce resources on this farce called "opportunity scholarships" we should be exploring creative ways to strengthen our public schools. The war against public schools and public school teachers must end now for they are our only true hope in this matter.

By: JeffF on 1/21/13 at 12:26

This is not a war on public schools. If it were all school systems would be targeted. This is a war on the substandard systems in Nashville and Memphis. I am offended that people would use the public schools that work as a shield to protect the overpriced, low results urban systems we are stuck with. Let the state work on the issues that local officials have failed on since the 50s and 70s. The local officials are still wanting us to think they have a plan when obviously the only have status quo.

By: David_S on 1/21/13 at 1:39

This is not about getting every public school student to go to a private school, or undercutting funding for public schools. It's really quite simple: This is about the children. Not the children that are continually at the bottom of their class, the ones who work incredibly hard just to get a diploma. This is for their classmates, who are smart and full of potential, yet are languishing in a public school system designed to help everyone but them. Every major reform proposed to fix the school systems in Nashville and Memphis has been aimed at the bottom 25% of the class. This is finally a proposal that will say "hey, we're not going to keep you in a classroom where the teacher can never move as quickly as you can learn, just because that teacher has to spend their time teaching remedial math/english to the other half of the class". This is about telling those students "If you are doing well, and you are smart enough to make it at a private school, we won't let your poverty hold you back from a quality education." For those of you that are so set on keeping the public school status quo intact, tell me, what have you done for the top 25% of our failing schools, besides tell them they aren't important enough to warrant our attention?

By: kellyfretz on 1/21/13 at 3:11

Vouchers will only make a bad system worse in Davidson County. We need real education reform and vouchers, charter schools and standardized testing are not the answer. The first order of business for Davidson County is to get rid of Michelle Rhee, Commissioner Huffman and Governor Haslam, since he seems to be rolling over and not looking out for our children. If you want to know the truth, follow the money. solicits donations on the pretext of improving public education, but then uses the money to kill public schools, by buying the politicians that are as short sighted as Michelle Rhee. She got kicked out of Washington, DC for a reason.

In order to create true change in the public school system, there are 3 things that I see need to change immediately. First, we have to let the teachers teach. Standardized testing creates standardized teaching and that doesn’t have any benefits for any of the children. The reports cards our children get should be enough to show whether or not a child, and subsequently the teacher, is succeeding. Second, class size needs to be cut in half. Whether we do that that by physically cutting class size or having a second teacher in the classroom would make all the difference. Not only will the teachers be able to spend more individualized time, it will also make discipline issues easier to handle. This could be at least partially paid for using the millions of dollars we would save not having to administer those ridiculous TCAP tests. And finally, if a teacher isn’t performing, the administration needs to be able to fire them, regardless of how long they have been teaching. Of course, the administration needs to make sure teachers are teaching subjects that they are good at teaching before any termination takes place. Having an exceptional math teacher teach language arts is unacceptable and from what I’ve seen, is done on a regular basis.

It’s time to circle the wagons and get rid of the rubbish that has filtered down from DC. Our children deserve the best public education they can get, and the current administration isn’t going to help us.

By: JeffF on 1/21/13 at 4:25

So to some up Kelly:
1) The Republicans who gained power in the last 4 years are the retroactive reason the urban school have sucked for five decades.
2) Standardized testing and other accountability items are wrong for the urban districts because they are evidence of failure with resources. Ending them will eliminate the ability to compare and contrast our crappy schools with the good schools all over the state.
3) It does not matter that the rest of the world that is kicking out heads in have larger class sizes, we must increase union membership by decreasing our class sizes and hire more teachers.

It is not the feds or the states' faults that urban school districts are the bottom of the barrel. They both serve over school systems that do manage to work. This "get out of our way so we can get back to the status quo" agenda is a joke and a relic of the 60s War on Poverty. Sucking at educating kids does not trickle down from the capital buildings, it bubbles up from the inner-city asphalt. Please stop the insanity of fighting off change when the current situation has no hope of ever improving.

By: JeffF on 1/21/13 at 4:31

I figure we should consider ourselves lucky that the state's elected officials are even wanting to try. After 100+ years of Democratic control of the state and the corresponding ignoring and failure of the Metro and Memphis schools, I consider us blessed that they even want to stick their noses into the smelly and decrepit education system. They could have just stuck to overseeing and helping the good schools and let us rot in our own mess.

By: kellyfretz on 1/21/13 at 4:42

And how many children do you have in public school, JeffF? You sound exactly like those decrepit dinosaurs that want to bring Tennessee back to the 1950's. That may work for you, but I would rather move into the 21st century.

By: JeffF on 1/21/13 at 7:57

2, which is 2 more than the average metro teacher.

By: JeffF on 1/21/13 at 7:59

Coincidentally Kelly you named the last decade Nashville schools were not the next to last schools in the state. Segregation had to end, its a shame teacher pride had to as well.

By: JeffF on 1/21/13 at 8:04

Which urban school district is Nashville following into the 21st century Kelly? Based on your wish list it looks like all of them. By all means. let keep the urban school kids heading into the 21st century positions set aside for them, prisons and part-time hospitality industry jobs.
someone has to work the jobs for tips from the suburban and private school kids.

I wish Nashville leaders would start looking at what our neighbors are doing right instead of continuing to mimic the same list of failing large cities.

By: pswindle on 1/21/13 at 11:02

Does Willliamson Counsty have vouchers? They have the highest scores in the state. Hume Fogg and the other magnet schools do well. We have models to follow, and the answer is not vuchers or charters.

By: boyzmom on 1/22/13 at 5:20

Until the root causes of underachievement (poverty, lack of resources, lack of parental / family involvement / investment) are addressed, nothing will change. Charter schools are not the answer.
Less testing and more teaching would certainly help. For example, my 8th graders take a quarterly benchmark test in every subject, EXPLORE, semester exams, TCAP writing, and TCAP exams. That doesn't count practice testing, either. This is excessive assessment, and something must be done to reduce it.
Haslam is rich and doesn't care about public schools. Rhee and her ex-husband Huffman are unqualified snake oil salesman who have way less than ten years experience teaching COMBINED. They only care about getting Tennessee $$$ for themselves. Be afraid of the Haslam/Rhee/Huffman alliance, folks. Be VERY afraid

By: morpheus120 on 1/22/13 at 7:53

I see that the elephant in the room is not addressed either in this article or in the comment thread: Parent involvement.

I don't care what race you are, what your income is, or where you live. If a child's parent(s) are actively involved in their child's education, the child is almost certainly going to succeed. If the parents phone it in, it's a recipe for disaster.

This is something that nobody wants to talk about because what politician has the courage to tell parents that the reason their kid is failing is because they are playing video games with them after school instead of reading or doing homework with them. It seems like the one consistent factor over and over again in other countries where students do well is that their society and culture support education both at school and at home. Does anybody really think that American culture does this? Certainly it doesn't in the South and you can see the test results and dropout rates as evidence.

All this other nonsense about vouchers is exactly what it seems. A scheme to take your tax dollars and put it into the hands of private companies who are in business to make money.

Parent involvement is the only real solution to fixing public education in America and only parents can turn things around. The rest is just noise.

By: kellyfretz on 1/22/13 at 9:07

JeffF we finally agree on something...

"I wish Nashville leaders would start looking at what our neighbors are doing right instead of continuing to mimic the same list of failing large cities."

We need to look outside the box, as cliche as that sounds. Maybe following a reasonable example is a good idea, but what about creating the road that is best for Metro Nashville. Let's study the great inner city public schools (if there truly are any) and take the best ideas from all and combine them for our kids.

But first we need to make sure Rhee, Huffman and Haslam don't completely destroy anything good we have left in Nashville.

Oh, and I didn't specifically say anything about Republicans. They just happen to be in charge at the moment. The governor prior to Haslam didn't do anything to help public education either. Besides, education shouldn't be about politics, it should be about the best thing for the kids.

By: NewYorker1 on 1/22/13 at 9:23

Why someone would want to have children is something I would never understand. It just seems to be one big burden after another.

I'd much rather spend my time and money on shopping sprees in Paris.

By: Left-of-Local on 1/22/13 at 11:01

This is so disgusting. Instead of fixing the public system, sticking it to home school parents with stricter standards and regulation, and shoving the private schools as far away from the tax teat as they can, these jackasses are attempting to further induce the closed-loop of the right-wing greed-meets-religion machine that helps them manufacture more brainwashed neoconservative idiots.

Toss in the retarded local politics of charters and it's just a mess.

Metro, you're only 50. And you act like it. Pathetic for the new "it" city. Even more pathetic that this state-level bullcrap is about to cash in on that weakness.

By: JeffF on 1/22/13 at 11:37

Kelly,why do people continue to blame people who have done nothing to destroy a public school system that was in ruins way before they came along. Rhee has no power to enact anything and hasn't. Huffman has not enacted anything that caused a rift in time that retroactively caused Metro schools to suck for decades, and Haslam has done nothing. Yet the simple minded here blame them for all the problems. The extra dumb are blaming private, for-profit charter schools that do not even exist in Nashville.

It is time the mean ol' state took the schools over from the well intentioned local people who have run them into the ground. I'm sorry, but they sure cannot do any worse than the zeros who defend the current system and its efforts.

Pswindle as for why Williamson and the other counties do not do charters, they do not have decades of history of failing, using, and abusing the poor. Nashville does indeed have models to follow, it is called "anything is better than we are doing now"'. It is sad that people like you would think it was okay to inflict the status quo on one or two more generations.

By: GoodieTwoShoes on 1/22/13 at 12:26

Parental envolvement is a very important. It's not the politicians that tell us that. It's the teachers who tell us that. If the parents stay in contact with their child's teacher and forge a relationship with them, the child has a better chance of succeding. If my child is making bad grades, acting up, then call me. Let's work together to solve the problem. Now can someone explain to me how taking money out of the system and increasing class sizes will help the problem.
We don't blame those people, we just can see that they don't care about our kids.

By: JeffF on 1/22/13 at 12:46

Goodie, see comment by David S above. At some point schools have to do something for the benefit of the students that are capable and interested in achievement. Forever tying them to a system so it will benefit the dead weight at the bottom. Right now we are spending money and resources on a system that continues to fails both the group it concentrates on and the kids it ignores and holds hostage.

By: GoodieTwoShoes on 1/22/13 at 2:08

So what happens to the rest of the kids? These vouchers will not be enough for some parents to put their kids into a private school that they might choose. And if you have a parent of a very bright child that is already struggling to make ends meet; let's pile on that the transportation issues to get your child to that school. It may not be intended to take money out of the system, but it will. Then what? Another question, Will the schools that take this money submit to the same rules that Metro schools? I mean this is public money that we are talking about. Will these new charters also abide by the same rules? Or are we just going to hand them money?

By: JeffF on 1/22/13 at 3:12

Lets hope they do not abide by the rules Metro puts out there. The last few years has shown that the Metro council can come up with some stupid "fairness" rules. Luckily for everyone the wiser state legislature keeps swatting them down.

I would be a lot more inclined to to hand money to the private sector than to Metro government. Yeah sure lets spend a half billion dollars on a convention center within site of the school with the leaky roof and above the rotting sewer, water, and stormwater infrastructure.

I really would love to know where the schools are that teach it is fair to hold back and cheat the capable and brightest so it does not hurt the downtrodden. Was there a charter school in the gulags?

Lets improve the lights of the kids that can be helped then worry about the ones that cannot be easily fixed. This decades long crusade to fix the education of the non-achieving while ignoring the talented has obviously been proven to not work. Its a shame we had to flush the lives of three generations of kids to reach that result. "Trickle Up Education" has destroyed the cities of America.

By: BigPapa on 1/22/13 at 3:13

I'm sure a few legislators already own school franchises and as soon as this passes they will open and take in big ol' gobs of public money directly in their bank accounts.

By: GoodieTwoShoes on 1/22/13 at 4:22

That's interesting. So we give this private for profit company our tax dollars and they don't have to be accountable for it? Trickle up education? I once heard about a 3rd grade class that had groups at various levels. Some kids were reading on a 3rd grade level, some on 4th and 5th. One kid, was behind and was making bad grades and acting out. By your reasoning, we should just slide that one in the corner. However, the kids got together and decided that nobody was going to fail in this class, and brought that kid along so that everybody passed. Turns out there were other issues that kept the kid from studying. Not only did that kid pass that grade, that kid made principal's list. If they can't abide by the School Board rules, then they don't need metro tax money. Use that money that you put into school board elections and run your school. Then the parents that choose to go there, can go. That is choice.

By: Vuenbelvue on 1/22/13 at 7:02

Property tax increases for decades to come because money (Property Tax) is funneled out of the public school system. The Legislature should pass with a bill, the right of property tax payers to pay into a bond, somewhat like the storm water tax that is paid quarterly, that will pay the increase in property taxes that will occur should this idea or other public spending ideas back fire. Maybe more like "Flood Insurance". At least we will be able to protect ourselves.
I would guess a third of the population may not have children in grades 1 through 12 and should not have their rights trampled on or property taxes put at risk by lobbyist or government employees. This may need to be put on a referendum and voted on in a upcoming election.

By: pswindle on 1/22/13 at 7:42

If I'm not mistaken, state and church should be separated. How can this be, if we take public money and give to religious schools? Metro has the same type of students that are in Williamson County. They may have more kids with money, but they still have all kinds in Williamson Country. If teachers are given the chance to teach, only good can happen. Some of the most successful students come out of Metro. One can get the test results that are needed if only the average and obove are tested. Metro tests all of the students. I would like to know how Charters are tested. If private schools take public money they have to follow the public school policies. You don't ever get what you wish for.

By: JeffF on 1/22/13 at 9:17

The paranoia about for profit private schools would be funny if it were not repeated so often even when challenged. One more time, name one private charter school making a profit of Metro taxpayers. The rantings of the left when they think someone earns a profit is really quite scary.

swindle, the Supreme Court ruled on your concerns several years ago, you lost. Apparently in a case from Cleveland the justices examined the Constitution including all the amendments and were unable to find "Separation of Church and State" anywhere other than alternative news weeklies comments and rambling Krauthammer opinions.

I am curious though how the other school systems In the state. can spend less, have the same onerous testing requirements with "all kinds" but have managed to avoid the rabbit hole we continue to fall through. Even their poor kids outperform ours on those hateful tests. Why should Metro schools be the ones exempt from the responsibility of putting their money where their mouths are?

Turn in the charter, let the state take over education here since they are more interested in doing something other than " more of the same". It does stuck knowing we as a city are incapable of running decent schools while blowing money on each urban rehab fad that comes through the League of Cities, but acceptance will move us toward healing.

By: JeffF on 1/22/13 at 9:20

Also, regardless of what you hear, the charters still have to test just like our wonderful schools of regular existence and more than likely the privates accepting vouchers will too.

I so glad this state finally starting advancing following the century of cotton farmers with white hoods and Democratic credentials.

By: Vuenbelvue on 1/23/13 at 8:30

Jeff. Good time to put education on a 12 month schedule. Summer recess was designed to help with family farm labor as we all know. Time to do 5 day weeks with something less than banker's holidays and a maximum of 2 weeks off for a vacation and sick days based on years employed. None of the in service days for teacher time off. Modernize the antiquated system.
I could go further and say test the students and if they don't have a proficiency in higher math or foreign language bring back up to date technical programs they can take. Don't bore them and waste their time chasing a donkey's tail.

By: David_S on 1/23/13 at 12:31

"Metro has the same type of students that are in Williamson County."

BAHAHAHAHAH. Thanks, i needed a good laugh today.

By: courier37027 on 1/24/13 at 5:34

Heck, give vouchers a try. If they fail, we never hear this concept again. Should they succeed, better for students who want to learn. To scream this will not work before trying them smacks of monopoly, fear, paranoia.

I would submit ending compulsory education for minors, with parental approval. There is no need teaching someone who does not want to be there and holds back the class.

For those who stay in public schools, a user's fee or tuition would be a nice way to defray burden borne of property owners through taxes.