Unaccountable “education savings accounts” is the latest twist to carve out public funding for private schools.
As the 111th General Assembly gets underway, there is intense speculation about what the privatization push will look like this year. It is unclear whether or not the Lee administration will introduce its own voucher bill, as former Governor Haslam did in 2013, or whether he will leave the matter to the legislature to debate on their own.
It is clear that privatizers are favoring Education Savings Accounts as a new means to try to change the conversation after five years of stinging defeats when peddling more traditional voucher legislation. While ESAs are referred to by some as “vouchers light,” nothing could be further from the truth.
ESAs are vouchers on steroids, as recipients are sent money directly rather than applying it toward the cost of private school tuition. As such, parents can then spend the funds however they like, even if that means keeping their children home and not attending school at all.
This super voucher has been used in other states with disastrous results. Sending funds directly to parents has invited widespread fraud and abuse of voucher funds.
“The fact is, we have truant officers for a reason,” says TEA chief lobbyist Jim Wrye. “The state will be providing a monetary incentive for the misuse of funds and children will suffer as a result.”
Oversight has proven to be a tremendous challenge in ESA states, often with the government resorting to random audits rather than comprehensive reviews due to the sheer volume of purchases. Inappropriate purchases have been caught, but also parents that took the money and simply re-enrolled their child in a public school again.
There are also still all the same challenges that have always plagued voucher proposals. It became clear last year that many legislators understood the need to ensure real accountability by demanding that any recipient of public money took the same test required of public school students. This would be even more challenging if the state started to subsidize home school students with public funds.
The central problem for privatization advocates also remains: vouchers don’t work. Study after study, even those commissioned by pro-privatization think tanks and foundations, come to the same conclusion when looking at voucher programs in other states. Student achievement does not improve for voucher students, and in most cases, it gets worse.
There are various ideas being floated about how a system of ESAs would be funded, but inevitably the cost will be borne by local governments. The static costs of running the public schools will remain even if enrollment declines, meaning the local taxpayers will have to foot the bill for a state-mandated voucher scheme.
“It is clear through elections and polling that Tennesseans do not want vouchers in our state,” says Wrye. “My hope is that we can focus on making our public schools the best they can be, and do away with efforts to hurt them.”