Tennessee Education Association

Great Public Schools for All Students


Billions of taxpayer dollars funneled nationally to fund vouchers

Privatization advocates have had their sights set on Tennessee for years, but TEA has worked hard to hold them off for four straight legislative sessions, keeping public taxpayer money where it belongs - in public schools’ budgets.

These groups have been working again this session to privatize our public schools through a number of different schemes, including the Memphis pilot program and expansion of the special education vouchers. Both bills are still moving in the legislature. 

The Memphis pilot bill (HB126/SB161) has been on a noticeably slower road through both chambers this year, indicating legislators are increasingly aware of the many problems with these voucher plans and unwilling to force unproven vouchers on any district in the state.If a voucher plan should make it through, the implications for public education funding could be disastrous. 

States that have not been successful in defeating voucher legislation are seeing these programs eat away at increasingly larger chunks of public school dollars. 

Some of the largest programs in the country - Arizona, Florida, Indiana, Louisiana and Ohio - now total close to $1 billion in combined spending on some form of voucher program. Wisconsin alone has a voucher program that has grown to $245 million in just a couple of years. 

Tennessee will not be far behind if the pilot program were to pass this session. Based on the bill’s fiscal note, the voucher program would shift nearly $19 million away from the local school district to the private voucher schools.

TEA and other public school advocates are working to make sure these dangerous privatization schemes do not pass or expand this session. It is crucial that legislators continue to hear from educators statewide the vouchers in any form, in any district are wrong for Tennessee children.

Proposed expansion of special ed voucher program threatens most vulnerable students, waives federal protections

Lawmakers poised to violate promise to not expand until program proven effective

At the very end of the 2015 legislative session, the General Assembly passed a voucher scheme known as Individualized Education Accounts (IEAs) targeting students with disabilities. The program was dubbed a limited pilot program to explore options for students most in need of assistance. Now, as the first group of students have begun using these vouchers, legislators are back pushing an expansion of the plan. 

“Parents recognize the danger of participating in this program, as evidenced by the less than 40 students who are receiving the voucher this year,” said TEA President Barbara Gray. “Families who sign up for the program have to forfeit their rights under IDEA – the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Fortunately, most parents realize forfeiting those rights is not in the best interest of their child with special needs.”

The program is costing the state more in administrative costs than the actual benefits provided to families receiving the vouchers.

Dana Goldstein, in a recent New York Times piece notes:

By accepting the vouchers, families may be unknowingly giving up their rights to the very help they were hoping to gain. The government is still footing the bill, but when students use vouchers to get into private school, they lose most of the protections of the federal Individuals With Disabilities Education Act.

Many parents, among them Tamiko Walker, learn this the hard way. Only after her son, who has a speech and language disability, got a scholarship from the John M. McKay voucher program in Florida did she learn that he had forfeited most of his rights.

The scenario Goldstein describes in Florida is exactly what happens in Tennessee. When a parent accepts the IEA voucher, they sign a waiver of their IDEA rights. Specifically, the language of the Tennessee IEA law reads:

“Participation in the program shall have the same effect as a parental refusal to consent to the receipt of services under 20 U.S.C. § 1414 of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).”

What rights are parents forfeiting by accepting the IEA voucher? The rights guaranteed under IDEA include, “the right to a free education; the right to the same level of special-education services that a child would be eligible for in a public school; the right to a state-certified or college-educated teacher; and the right to a hearing to dispute disciplinary action against a child.”

“In short, every basic protection you’d expect to be provided to your child in a public school is given up when a parent accepts an IEA voucher,” Gray said. “Now, legislators want to expand the list of students who are eligible for these vouchers, encouraging more families to accept a few thousand dollars in exchange for a waiver of all rights and protections for their child with special needs.”

The new proposal adds “developmental delay” and “multiple disabilities” to the list of conditions that qualify a student for the voucher. These additions represent a broad expansion of the original program. This breaks the promise made by bill sponsors in 2015 to give the program time to see how it works. 

Fortunately, very few families have signed up so far. So, why are some lawmakers in a hurry to expand a program that’s not living up to its promise and could actually harm the students and families it is intended to help? Proponents want vouchers at all costs. Privatization advocates like Americans for Prosperity and Betsy DeVos’ American Federation for Children are seeking to gain a voucher foothold in Tennessee and use it to expand vouchers rapidly. 

We know programs like the IEA vouchers have been subject to fraud in states like Arizona and Florida. We’ve seen minimal demand for the program here in Tennessee. It’s a program taxpayers can’t afford and families don’t need or want. 

TEA will fight to prevent any expansion of this program and will work to demand accountability and ensure steps are in place to prevent fraud and abuse. 

We don’t need one more state tax dollar spent on unproven voucher schemes. 

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