Tennessee gets more value for every education dollar than almost any other state.
We are 45th in funding per student and 9th in on-time graduation rate. In fact, both our graduation rate and our average ACT score keeps going up. Money invested in public schools gets results.
These facts haven’t stopped privatizers from spending millions of dollars to push risky, unproven voucher schemes on Tennessee. For the past four years, TEA has been the number one opponent of vouchers at the General Assembly, and thanks to members, we’ve won every fight.
With untold millions backing them, voucher proponents are back again. This time, they are pushing a so-called “limited” voucher scheme or pilot program that would be limited to just Shelby County. They’re saying they will start small, see if it works, and only grow when necessary.
Don’t believe the hype!
Any voucher scheme is a risk to millions in public education dollars. Any voucher scheme, no matter how small at the start, will take public money and send it to private schools. That’s a sure way to damage one of our state’s best investments: our public schools.
Florida and Indiana offer two examples of how small voucher plans ended up costing taxpayers big money.
Back in 2011, Indiana enacted a “limited” school voucher plan. Then-Governor Mitch Daniels said at the time, “It is not likely to be a very large phenomenon in Indiana. I think it will be exercised by a meaningful but not an enormous number of our students.”
Indeed, the program was initially limited to just 7,500 available vouchers. Enter Mike Pence. Pence became Governor of Indiana in 2013 and rapidly pushed to expand the voucher program. Now, approximately 33,000 students receive a voucher at a cost of $131 million a year. More than $50 million of that is spent on students who never attended a public school.
In 2002, Florida Governor Jeb Bush began a push for a limited voucher scheme in his state. The program would start small, and only expand if successful. Now, Florida has three different school voucher programs enrolling more than 100,000 students costing hundreds of millions of dollars. Here’s the most interesting part: There’s little evidence vouchers are doing much good. Not only can the state not say vouchers have improved student achievement, in the case of the McKay scholarships for students with special needs, there’s been rampant fraud and abuse. Parents of limited means have handed over state vouchers to unsavory private school operators out to make a quick dollar. When the operators get caught and schools close, kids get left behind.
Education reformers have been working to dismantle public education infrastructure in Tennessee, too. One good example is the Achievement School District (ASD). When it started, the ASD was designed to provide targeted intervention and additional resources to up to ten schools at a time. The goal was to provide assistance and hand the schools back to districts. Now, however, the ASD has more than 30 schools under its control and has farmed out the management to a wide range of charter operators. The data shows ASD schools simply aren’t getting results, and yet the state has expanded the program into Nashville and has announced intentions to move to Chattanooga. This once small program costs millions to run and leaves hundreds of students behind.
Starting Small Means Big Problems
Florida and Indiana show us that a small privatization experiment can create big problems for a state budget. Our own experience with the ASD shows that a “limited” program can do significant damage. When legislators tell you they support a pilot program for vouchers and that it will only impact Shelby County, don’t believe it. Tell them what happened in Florida and Indiana. Tell them you don’t want hundreds of millions in public money sent to private schools. Above all, tell them our public schools are doing a great job – improving graduation rates, increasing ACT scores, and moving ahead on the NAEP. Let’s keep supporting our state’s best investment – our public schools.