Tuesday, the Tennessee House of Representatives passed school voucher legislation in a dramatic 50-48 vote. 

When voting on the bill opened, the House was deadlocked at 49-49. Republican leaders helping shepherd a signature bill for Gov. Bill Lee met on a patio outside the House chamber to talk with legislators voting against the bill. After 40 minutes, Rep. Jason Zachary, R-Knoxville, changed his nay to a yea. The bill passed and voting closed.

Zachary said he changed his vote after being assured students in his district wouldn’t be included in the final version of the bill. The companion Senate bill only offers the $7,300 Education Savings Accounts to students in Memphis and Nashville, dropping Knoxville, Chattanooga and Jackson schools from the plan. 

Zachary said he supported the premise of voucher but “couldn’t do it unless Knox County was taken out.” 

So this legislator thinks giving public money to private entities who don’t abide by the same regulations as public schools is good government — as long as his constituents aren’t impacted?

Rep. Zachary, if it’s not a good plan for students in Knoxville, why would you support hanging this albatross around the necks of the Memphis, Nashville and Chattanooga school districts? 

Zachary denied being offered incentives to change his vote, but two other Republican lawmakers have come forward and said they were heavily lobbied. Rep. David Hawk, R-Greeneville, and Rep. Bob Ramsey, R-Maryville, both said they were approached by “advocates” over the weeks leading up to the controversial vote and offered “unspecified” incentives, hinting at support for government funding of projects in the future if they would provide their support now.

Only the truly naive would believe our legislative process works entirely without such “You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” wheeling and dealing. But this is a landmark vote that could dramatically change education in Tennessee for a generation or more. 

Tennessee’s General Assembly has been loathe to turn public money over to private entities that don’t meet the requirements placed on our public school systems. Now, we face the possibility of giving parents a $7,300 check each year for educational services for their children. Parents would need to remove their children from public schools before receiving the funds, and there would be income limits ($65,000 for a family of four) to qualify. Under the Senate plan, only 15,000 students would be accepted — half of the House plan. 

But $7,300 won’t pay the full cost of private school tuition at many schools. That’s one reason Rep. Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, said in June 2017 vouchers offered a “false hope.” Many students enrolled in the high-poverty urban districts couldn’t come up with the difference between the voucher funds and the tuition costs. They wouldn’t have the option of leaving their schools.

Sexton voted against the bill at every opportunity.

Private schools also don’t have to meet the same testing standards of our public schools. Our local schools are just wrapping up this year’s annual testing in math, reading, science and social studies. All high school students must take the ACT before graduating. The scores not only help discern where students are making gains or falling behind, they figure heavily in annual teacher evaluations and school rankings.

Over time, the voucher plan would siphon more and more funds away from public schools, which are funded using a complex formula based on student enrollment. Schools that have already been struggling will find fewer resources available to help turn their schools around, and only a fraction of the students in those schools will be able to make use of the voucher funds.

Tennessee has made tremendous gains in education in the past several years. When you look at academic growth — the amount of knowledge students gain from year to year — we’re tops in the Southeast. 

That’s a result of hard work happening in our schools each and every day, with dedicated teachers helping their students find success in their studies. Where there is growth, there will be academic gains. But it takes time to move that needle.

We recognize there are schools with a myriad of problems impacting student achievement. We have many of those same problems in our community.  But the solution isn’t facilitating an exodus of students to private, unaccountable schools. It’s in committing to working with those schools to come up with a plan that works, in understanding the barriers students face and in providing resources to overcome those barriers and provide students with a sense of hope for the future.

And it doesn’t happen overnight.  

With two dramatically different versions of the bill set to be approved by the two houses of the General Assembly, the future of school vouchers isn’t a done deal. The Senate and House will have to work those differences out in conference and the bills will return for a final, deciding vote based on whatever details they manage to hammer out. 

We hope all legislators will vote for what they believe is in the best interest of all students in the state, without promises or coercion. 

If they wouldn’t support this program for their own students, they shouldn’t be supporting it for any students.

Crossville Chronicle