State legislative committees begin to review school voucher bills for Tennessee

Friday, March 17, 2017
On Feb. 7, Rep. Bill Sanderson, Dyersburg City School System Director Neel Durbin and Dyer County School System Superintendent Larry Lusk attended meetings at the state Capitol to discuss upcoming legislation and education budget changes for the 2017-18 school year. Each year education costs take up the largest portion of state funding per budget item. From left to right: Rep. Bill Sanderson, Dyersburg School Superintendent Neel Durbin, Dyer County Superintendent Larry Lusk, and Sen. Ed Jackson.


With the welcoming of a new presidential administration comes a variety of changes impacting society as a whole on both federal and state levels, with one of the most controversial issues yet to be arisen surrounding multi-billionaire and philanthropist Betsy DeVos, who despite much opposition from the Democratic Senate due to her lack of experience as an educator, was recently appointed as education secretary under the Trump Administration.

Known for her support of private and charter schools, DeVos has dedicated the past 20+ years of her career toward promoting the redistribution of tax dollars to provide vouchers for students of private and charter schools, which are currently not subject to follow any federal or state pre-approved curriculum. DeVos has also endorsed School Choice Week, an event designed to raise awareness of all types of educational options for children, throughout the country.

While a name like ‘School Choice Week’ doesn’t set off any initially negative reactions to those unaware of how the program might ultimately impact their area, the three words have raised hairs on the necks of teachers and public school administrators across the nation, as the event, dubbed to be a ‘non-partisan’, ‘nonpolitical’ awareness effort [] seems to have become very political indeed, with reportedly half of America’s governors supporting the effort, including Tennessee’s own Gov. Bill Haslam.

Coinciding with these changes, three new voucher bills are now being introduced and discussed at legislative committee meetings at the state capitol in Nashville throughout the month of March, including one bill [SB161] which, if passed, would allow low-income parents with roughly $7,000 a year to spend on private school or home school curriculum for their child. Sponsored by Sen. Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown), the bill would first be piloted in Shelby County schools, creating a voucher program to be reviewed every 5 years. Currently, the bill has been deferred in the House Education Administration and Planning Committee.

The other two bills [SB460; SB336] proposed to the committee include the Empowerment Scholarship Account Act, which allows parents to ‘utilize funds in an empowerment scholarship account to pay the education expenses of enrolling their eligible student/children in a nonpublic school participating in the program instead of enrolling in a public school’, and HB336, which establishes a scholarship program for eligible students to attend participating private K-12 schools.

Similar bills regarding the implementation of school vouchers have been discussed by state legislative committees for nearly 5 years; however, the bills were unable to gain sufficient support from the Senate to be pushed through.

So what does this mean for public schools?

If passed, funding received by public sector schools will, in time, be reduced, in turn, causing school administrators and local supporting governments to take a closer look at their budget and potential cuts, a move that would ultimately impact thousands of public sector students.

In accordance with the voucher bills, low-income students will be able utilize scholarship funds if currently attending a school identified as being in the bottom 5 percent of school’s in overall achievement.

Because of this, many individuals have become very concerned about the future of public schools, which are effectively capable of housing and educating the largest number of students versus communities with only one or two private schools limited in the number of students they are capable of enrolling.

The bills have received mixed reviews from various nationwide educators representing both Democratic and Republican parties who seem to agree that the most sensible resolve to the nation’s current education problem may simply be eliminating Common Core and the Department of Education altogether while finding alternative ways to better serve and strengthen public sector education.

Investigating ways in which these bills might affect schools in the Dyer County area, State Gazette reached out to Neal Durbin, Dyersburg City School System director, and Dr. Larry Lusk, Dyer County School System superintendent for their opinions on the matter.

These were their comments:

“Vouchers remain an emotional issue with numerous reports, none of which are definitive. Arguments can be made from both sides of the aisle. Harvard professor Paul Peterson recently published results from a 1990’s study on vouchers. 1300 students in New York City were chosen through a lottery to receive vouchers. Through 2011, there was no difference in their level of academic success compared with students who did not receive the vouchers. This same study sites higher graduation rates for African-American students with vouchers than those without although their scores remain indistinguishable. In 2006, Ohio launched a voucher program. Not only are there no definitive results from the study, 40,000 of the funded vouchers have gone unused.

“Simply put, the data is not there to support or condemn voucher programs but logic would indicate that there would be other changes. No one would argue the fact that the quality of the teacher is the single greatest influence on student success. Teachers make the difference! With or without vouchers, we will have the identical pool of teachers. Who believes that we will suddenly have an onslaught of great new teachers if we institute a voucher program especially when teachers in private settings, those who would receive students with vouchers, pay significantly less than teachers in public education? Same teachers, no measurable gains, less pay for teachers, with taxpayer monies going to private education cooperatives.

“If the mission is to improve education for our students, we must begin with teacher recruitment, training and yes, teacher pay. One fact that is indisputable is that Dyer County and Dyersburg have made tremendous gains through public education. Vouchers pose little if any threat to Dyersburg and Dyer County's public education. We are truly blessed with two of the best systems in the state. This success is mostly due to the high quality of our teachers. Our community and parental support help our teachers succeed today but what about tomorrow? Will we attract the quality of teachers that we need as our ‘baby boomer’ educators retire? We have been blessed with some extremely talented young teachers who have entered the workforce in recent years but the well is running dry. Other systems cannot fill vacant positions now, are we next? Our districts need to continue improving, innovating and improvising as we meet the challenge.” - Neal Durbin.

(According to the Tennessee Department of Education website: “The first public school law in Tennessee was passed in 1829 authorizing local taxes for the support of common schools. … The Public School Law of 1873 is regarded as the parent act of public education and provided the basic framework for Tennessee’s system of public education.”)

“The Tennessee State Government played a crucial role in developing a foundation of public education. The vision for the Dyer County School System was built many years ago by the Dyer County Legislative Body, County Mayor, and the Dyer County Board of Education. We are fortunate to have 12 great public schools that serve the community. The Dyer County School System operates 8 of those 12 schools. The community serves each of the schools in a close knit supportive capacity. That ‘close knit supportive capacity’ allows are students to be nurtured each day by caring teachers, supervisors, and support personnel. The Dyer County School System is a special place because of the incredible support.

“Student achievement is the driving force behind education in Dyer County and Tennessee. The Department of Education in an effort to raise proficiency standards in Math, Reading, Science, and Social Studies has increased achievement level proficiencies since 2001. Because of the state initiative to increase rigor, Tennessee schools have remained the fastest improving state in education since 2011 according to NAEP, the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Tennessee’s national ranking of 35th in the nation may seem low but just a few years ago the ranking was 44th. Public education in Dyer County and Tennessee has come a long way in a short time because of increased accountability, a caring community, and caring staff.

“Increased accountability in our state also includes our state government and the Tennessee Department of Education. Teachers have to meet certain coursework requirements when graduating from college. In addition, prospective teachers must pass praxis exams as part of their certification. The measures for teacher certification in Tennessee public schools has raised the bar for student achievement.” - Dr. Larry Lusk.

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