The state legislature recently passed a bill that gives vouchers to parents enrolling their children into private schools. The vouchers total an average of $7,300. Currently, the program only includes Nashville and Memphis districts, but it may soon expand to affect the entire state. Local educators and officials are concerned about how these vouchers will affect public education in Manchester and Coffee County Schools.
Senator Janice Bowling, who represents Coffee County, voted for the bill. House Representative Rush Bricken opposed it.
Coffee County Education Association President Mike Stein and New Union Elementary teacher Leslie Aaron both voiced their concerns about the voucher program.
“From my viewpoints, it doesn’t really solve the problem of the ‘failing schools,’” Stein said. “First of all, you have to understand why schools are called failing in the first place. It's based on TNReady scores. And TNReady hasn’t worked in the past five years. So, it's very easy just to question the bill just on those grounds alone.
“Even aside from that, what this bill does is essentially, for lack of a better term, it’s allowing white kids who go to private schools in Nashville and Memphis the opportunity to take state tax dollars and apply them to private schools,” Stein said.
Additionally, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) has publicly called the bill a step backwards for civil rights due.
The vouchers will not cover the total cost of sending children to private schools either – the cost of tuition, books, room and board in some cases, and transportation will be more than the voucher provides.
“Here’s the question: Who is this really benefitting? It’s benefitting the wealthy people who are probably already going to send their kids to private schools anyway,” Stein said.
Both Stein and Aaron are for private schooling and believe there is more than one way to teach a child.
“Sometimes private schools or homeschools are the best setting for some students and CEA and I think teachers at large don’t really have any grudge against private schooling or home schooling. The issue here is that the public money is following them there,” Stein said.
Stein and Aaron expressed their gratitude toward Bricken for voting against the bill and thanked him for representing his constituents.
The Times reached out to Bowling numerous times for comment, but has not heard back as of press time.
How it will affect Coffee County?
Despite it not yet being introduced in Coffee County, the voucher program is already affecting Manchester and Coffee County Schools.
The day it passed in the senate, April 25 (May 1 for an amended version), the Coffee County Board of Education expressed their concerns and decided it would be more frugal to give their faculty a 1 percent raise instead of a 2 percent raise. This decision had multiple factors involved, including balancing the budget, but the uncertainty of the vouchers was part of the discussion, Aaron explained.
In Manchester, the Board of Mayor and Aldermen did not pledge money in their 2019-20 budget to assist College Street Elementary School with renovations due, in part, to the uncertainty of the voucher program as well. Alderman Ryan French pointed out the program has the potential to decimate Average Daily Attendance (a facet of BEP), which will reduce funding and therefore put more strain on the local population.
Stein and Aaron expect to see vouchers in the county within five years.
Aaron’s biggest concern, like French, is that it will affect funding.
“The BEP funding we get from the state, right now, it's based on enrollment,” Aaron said. “So, at New Union Elementary, we have 348 students enrolled. However, when this voucher comes through, people that are already at private schools can say, ‘oh I could use that voucher,’ and they can use Coffee County money for that. And so, they’re going to be taking funding away from Coffee County Schools even though they were never enrolled, they were never counted as part of our enrollment. You’re not taking our money with them; they’re taking our money from us.”
Aaron pointed out Coffee County is already in the top five when it comes to property tax costs. Memphis, Davis County are the only places in the state with a higher property tax rate.
Property taxes may increase regardless of school status – bureaucracy will be needed to prevent fraud and provide oversight to the program. In Arizona, $700,000 was mismanaged in voucher money in 2018. Steps would need to be taken in Tennessee to prevent that from happening here.
The voucher program has the potential to create a ripple effect in public schools with a failing rating. Stein explained the kids with the higher test scores are more likely to be pulled out of public education and put into private schools, thus skewing testing statistics in favor of private education.
“Then legislature is going to come back and say ‘See public schools are failing our kids. We need to close the schools down, or whatever their objective is, in the future,’” Stein said. “We're also going to have a harder time than we already have finding teachers to go to schools once some of those kids leave.”
Stein urged voters to elect pro-public education candidates in 2020 to begin dismantling this bill before it hits Coffee County.