Tennessee is gearing up for a potential showdown over school vouchers in the coming legislative session. After a 2011 bill creating a school voucher program failed to move through the state legislature, Governor Haslam convened a panel of education experts from both public and private schools to evaluate school voucher programs and put forth recommendations for future policy implementation.
School vouchers are a program used in several states that permits students in underperforming schools to use public funds to attend private schools or higher performing schools outside of their zoned schools . The idea is that such a program will enable students from disadvantaged backgrounds to obtain a high quality education and not be limited by their zip code.
When Governor Haslam’s panel presented their findings, it was evident that they agreed on very little. This panel did agree that any voucher program should be geared to low-income students and included a stipulation that private schools be held accountable via standardized testing if they choose to participate . However, evidencing how controversial any voucher program will be, the panel left many subjects undecided. They were unable to come to a consensus on how much money should accompany these students and whether or not a program should be limited to students coming from failing schools . These areas will need to be decided if any voucher program is to be created, as they are instrumental details.
While vouchers are an extremely contentious subject, it seems ridiculous that a panel would be unable to put forth helpful recommendations. Such a qualified panel would be the most able to make a policy recommendation on this issue, and they failed the people of Tennessee by not addressing the hardest parts of the proposal. The panel did show innovation in its suggestion that private schools receiving voucher money administer standardized exams, a proposition that would add accountability to any voucher program . However, that innovation is not enough to make up for the lack of serious decisions.
Ultimately, school vouchers remain a contentious and complex issue. Democrats tend to oppose these programs, as they divert public funding to private recipients, while Republicans believe that this enables the free market to work. Underperforming schools lose their students and thus funding while high-performing schools are rewarded (and sometimes burdened) with more students and funding. This contention is made obvious with the national attention being directed at Tennessee’s debate. Significant national money poured into local political election this year to candidates supporting opportunity scholarships (the glamorized term for school vouchers). This includes Michelle Rhee’s StudentsFirst group, which distributed over $400,000 through her PAC, and the American Federation of Children, which gave nearly $300,000 .
School vouchers are not going away anytime soon. Governor Haslam and the Legislature will have to make the hard decisions about whether to and how to implement any plan. Unfortunately, they lack the guidance that the panel was supposed to provide, but perhaps that’s simply because there are no easy, clear answers in education policy.