Tennessee Education Association

Great Public Schools for All Students


Two big fights: Against Charters and Vouchers


What you can do NOW to stop radical charter expansion & vouchers

A bill to increase state power to open charter schools across Tennessee hit fierce opposition over the past weeks. The Lee administration made concessions, but there are still concerns. 

HB940/SB796 creates a new state charter bureaucracy that can authorize charters in any school system, over the objections of local boards, and whose decisions are final and not subject to appeal. These state-run charter schools take all state and local BEP dollars, along with all local public school tax dollars above the BEP, including for capital outlay and transportation.

An amended bill narrowly passed the House Education committee on March 20, with more questions raised than answered during the tense hours-long hearing. The Senate Education committee passed the measure the same day.   

The original bill allowed charter companies to apply directly to the state, and eliminated critical language that let local school boards consider the negative fiscal impact to public schools of charter schools opening in the district as a reason to deny an application. The amended bill makes charter applicants go to the local board first and reinserted the fiscal impact language. The amended bill still allows the new state charter bureaucracy to ignore the financial damage and open state authorized charters in every school district in Tennessee.   

“When a charter school opens, a public school doesn’t close, and costs to the existing system rises per student,” said TEA lobbyist Jim Wrye. “The negative fiscal impact of charters on public schools is well documented, and the idea that an appointed state board can commandeer local education funding over the objection of an elected local school board is simply wrong.”     

Currently, if the state board overrules a system with a priority school, it may open one itself. For other systems, the state board commands the local system to authorize the charter, which it has never done.  

A new charter bureaucracy will have a financial incentive to open charter schools since it receives 3 percent of all state and local funding for each charter student. The budget of this new charter bureaucracy is estimated to be $1 million.    

One of the many lawmakers voting against the measure was Rep. Mark Cochran, R-Englewood (right), who asked key questions during debate, noting the state board has rarely overruled local education agencies under the current set-up.

“My worry [is] the current process seems to have given a lot of deference to local boards of education. My big worry on changing the process in a future commission is that that deference will no longer exist..”

That has been the concern of TEA. The bill has several key steps to go before final passage, including difficult votes in both House and Senate Finance committees. Limiting the ability of this new bureaucracy to ignore the fiscal impact findings, changing the makeup of the board, and altering the appropriation of local dollars by the state are still battleground in the coming weeks.   

The fight against vouchers

Vouchers and radical charter school expansion have hurt public education in other states. We are now engaged in the fight to prevent that from happening in Tennessee. 

“There is a reason why our state hasn’t gone down the privatization road like so many others, and it is because our association fights and wins,” said TEA President Beth Brown. “We fight in elections, we fight for public opinion, and we fight in the halls and offices of the legislature. The next weeks are critical for members to be active and vocal to beat bad legislation. We must fight and win for our students and schools.”  

The administration’s voucher bill was finally unveiled and passed by only one vote in a House subcommittee organized to hear privatization legislation. HB939/SB795 takes BEP funds and puts them on debit cards for families for private schools, home schooling or other purposes. It is modeled on an

Arizona law that has been ripe for fraud and abuse, and is a leading reason why that state is at the bottom for education funding. 

While past Tennessee voucher legislation was initially targeted for low income students attending priority schools, the administration’s bill targets upper-income families, up to $109,000 for a family of five, who live in counties with three or more schools in the bottom 10 percent. Voucher students take only the math and language arts state tests each year, and funds can be put in 529 college savings accounts rather than spent for current education needs. 

In a committee room packed with TEA members on Civication, association lobbyist Jim Wrye testified against the bill, outlining research showing voucher students fall behind their public school peers and how funds are easily misused. But his main focus was on the long-term devastating effects on school funding and local taxpayers. 

“We have never subsidized private school children with taxpayer dollars. Many high-income families that qualify for these public school dollars do not send their children to public school,” said Wrye, noting that in Arizona 75 percent of families getting vouchers were deemed affluent and zoned for public schools rated high-quality by the state, while only four percent are used by low-income families zoned for low- performing schools.  

“As these children reach kindergarten age they automatically qualify for all BEP dollars for the next 13 years. And since local governments in our cities fund a majority of the BEP, this is a new and unsustainable cost that will starve local schools and cause property tax increases,” Wrye said.

Under the terms of the bill, within 10 years 22,000 voucher children will get BEP dollars. In other states with similar laws, a majority of children getting vouchers (or in this case debit cards) never attended a public school. In current dollars, the new cost to local governments could be more than $60 million annually. 

The governor has put $25 million one-time funds in the budget to offset the loss of current students who leave public schools. But the program will have recurring costs that will far exceed any one-time appropriations and sap local government’s ability to invest in public schools.  

Once voucher programs get established, they always grow. The Arizona legislature expanded its voucher program to all families in the state, but before it could go into effect the law was overturned by referendum last November, trounced by voters 65 percent to 35 percent. 

The voucher bill is schedule to go before the full House Education committee on Wednesday. 

“We all need to engage our legislators to encourage them to do the right thing and vote no on vouchers,” said Brown. “We’ve beaten them before with united action, and we’ll need to do it again for the future of public education in the state.”          

Privatization is stopped when we all do our part!

Contact your legislators
To find your legislators’ email, go to capitol.tn.gov. Write to them about what you think! 

TEA pass-through calls
On key votes, TEA will send you a pass-through call to connect you with your legislator. When TEA President Beth Brown calls, please stay on the line, and leave them a powerful message. 

Use your social media
Share TEA posts
TEA posts updates and news, be sure to share these posts with your social networks! 

Post on your own
Don’t assume friends and family know about the attacks on public education. Tell them what is going on.  

Raise awareness
Wear red on Wednesday, tell parents why you are doing it, and use the hashtags #TN2020Vision #FundTNschools

Tell friends & family
Encourage your colleagues, folks at church, and family members to contact their legislators about the threats to your local public schools. 

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