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Suburban superintendents oppose Educational Savings Account legislation

By Published: March 31, 2019 4:21 PM CT

Despite Gov. Bill Lee's advocacy for parental choice in schooling through his education savings account program, suburban Shelby County superintendents are united in their opposition to the idea.

Lee's voucher plan is moving through the legislative process. It won approval from the House Education Committee March 27.


SAM STOCKARD: House Education Committee passes savings account plan


Under the heavily amended and still-evolving plan, students could receive a $7,300 voucher to attend a private school. Home school students would not be eligible.

The state already offers a small voucher program, called the Individualized Education Account Program. The program awards public school funds to eligible students with disabilities. The funds are used for approved educational resources that suit a child’s need. However, they have to first attend a public school for at least one year. Tennessee first awarded those funds in January 2017.

“There are a lot of unanswered questions,” state Rep. Kevin Vaughan said about Lee's new plan.

Vaughan, who serves on the House Education Committee and is also vice chairman of the Collierville School Board, voted against the plan in the March 27 Education Committee vote.

“It is so broad right now," the Collierville school district's outgoing superintendent, John Aitken, said of the bill.

Aitken said there are many questions about the plan because it is hard to understand in its present form.

The bill limits eligibility to districts that have Priority, or low-performing, schools. That means that in Shelby County, Shelby County Schools would be the only district eligible.

Suburban superintendents worry, however, about possible expansion of the program and how that would impact public dollars for their districts.  

Municipal school boards in Lakeland, Germantown, Bartlett, Collierville and Millington have signed resolutions stating their opposition to vouchers in all forms.

Accountability

“From the district’s perspective -- since our inception -- we’ve been against vouchers,” Bartlett City Schools Superintendent Dr. David A. Stephens said. “The No. 1 concern is we’re going to be taking dollars from public schools and giving them to other schools. We’re trying to run our districts with limited resources as it is, and any money that comes out of the schools is an issue.”

Stephens said limited accountability for the money that went to private institutions would be a problem.

“To me, that’s a big problem," he said. "We are measured and scrutinized from every different angle with so many metrics that we have to meet, grades and report cards. It just seems to be a bit unfair that they would not be under same scrutiny as we are.”

Stephens is not alone. Accountability is the biggest issue suburban superintendents have with the education savings account proposal. Although Lee said he is looking to refund schools for the students who leave their schools, it doesn’t address the accountability issue many have.

“You are taking funding – public tax dollars – from a regulated setting, from a setting of high accountability, to a completely unstructured setting with zero accountability,” Germantown Superintendent Jason Manuel said. He added it will have a “detrimental” effect on public education.

Manuel serves on Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn's executive superintendent council to represent the state’s southwest region. He said the lack of accountability creates an unfair situation and double standard. Some private schools could require students to take the TN Ready test at the end of the year, but Manuel said “that’s just one drop in the (accountability) bucket.”

“If the private school runs out of the funds, they are going to send them (students) back to their base school,” Millington Superintendent Bo Griffin said.

He added the state funds for those children would have been depleted by the private institutions.

“Apart from funding, my biggest fear is that education vouchers will lead to a substantial lack in oversight and accountability,” Arlington Community Schools Superintendent Tammy Mason said. “As it’s currently proposed, there’s no way to know how that money is being spent or what type of education it’s being used for. It could also open the state up to the possibility of fraud since there’s little oversight on how the voucher is being spent.”

She believes due to such a lack of accountability, students will eventually enter public schools behind academically.

“If the state moves forward with vouchers, lawmakers must ensure the money is being spent on the appropriate education and that it’s scrutinized to the same level of accountability as public schools to make sure our students are growing year to year,” Mason said.

“The way we see it is vouchers are basically a way to privatize education, and we think it undermines the public education system,” Lakeland Schools Superintendent Ted Horrell said. He discussed the topic with several state legislators in Nashville in February. “Our school board (is) unanimous in opposing any form of tax-payer funded vouchers that would divert money from our state’s public school system to private schools.”

“The state Board of Education and then the Tennessee Department of Education and the legislators have put in place all of these new accountability measures over the last several years,” Aitken said. “And we are doing everything we can to meet those standards.”

Aitken said many say Tennessee is improving rapidly due to those standards.

“We’re obviously doing a lot of things right under some very strict accountability measures," he said. "So one of the big concerns I have, from someone who has been doing it a long time, is now giving money that is destined for public education to somebody that does not have to adhere to those same accountability indicators or a small portion of them.”

Although Aitken is retiring in June, Collierville’s Board of Education echoed his stance.

“Our charge is to defend public education. This does not do that,” school board member Wright Cox said.

School “choice”

Superintendents feel that in spite of the added choices advocates say the program will provide, the reality will be that there will not be a large selection of options for many families.

Manuel said some students are removed from private settings for behavioral issues and, by law, GMSD is responsible for the students’ education.


“The challenge with all of this is even if this money is available to parents and families, many of the students that people want to target are not included in this program.”
–Jason Manuel, Germantown Superintendent


“The challenge with all of this is even if this money is available to parents and families, many of the students that people want to target are not included in this program,” Manuel said.

He said inner-city students in a single-parent home may attend a Priority school, but it will be tough moving those students to higher-achieving schools when transportation is not provided.

“It doesn’t solve some of the challenges that we see students face,” Manuel said. “Instead, what concerns me more is you’re going to see affluent families — who may already have their kids enrolled in private school – subsidizing their private school tuition. You haven’t changed the narrative. You haven’t changed the reality for those students that are in difficult situations.”

Manuel said vouchers will not allow parents to truly choose to place their child in any school. Schools would not give tons of freedom, as many institutions have strict financial criteria.

“You are going to distill public education and dissolve into it into a situation where people who don’t have choices -- people who don’t have opportunities -- are the ones who are receiving public education, and you are creating this have and have-not situation," Manuel said.

He said there is more risk for an achievement gap, for which some schools already are “dinged.”

Aitken said there are many choices already available in this area.

“We have a very robust private school system," he said. "We have robust charters. ”

Resources

Griffin said Millington needs the funds that could be taken away to engage students. He said for many of them, they go to Millington Schools because it is home.

“We need to keep the main thing the main thing, and that’s our kids,” he said.

Griffin said he needs to retain teachers who will engage and take care of the students.

“We need to let teachers teach and give them the tools to be successful.”

Griffin said education savings accounts and vouchers have the potential to strip classrooms of resources. He added that  teachers in Millington are challenged to build relationships with students, and such a foundation is used to prepare students for life after they leave Millington Schools.

“There’s no reason kids should not have a skill,” he said.

The state’s calculations show that in 2017, 53.5 percent of Millington’s students attended post-secondary education, but Griffin said the district needs resources to make sure those who don’t further their education are prepared for the workplace.

In Germantown, 80 percent of the district budget goes to teachers and people. If funding is taken from them for vouchers, the district has to cut all it can from other areas first and then cut teachers and programs, “dramatically” changing what GMSD offers.

Horrell believes vouchers have not been proven effective at improving student achievement or closing the achievement gap.

“I’m not aware of any data, and in fact there’s data that suggests otherwise, that charter schools do a better job of educating students than public schools do,” Horrell said. “Some charter schools do a great job, just as there are public schools that do a great job, and unfortunately there are some that don’t in both categories.”

“I don’t think there’s an advantage to anyone. To me it just seems like a further attack on public schools,” Stephens said. “It would have a such a drastic cost for us. We have to educate every kid who turns up on our doorstep, no matter what the situation or circumstance is.”

Private School

Ross Peters is head of St. George’s Independent School and serves as the West Tennessee representative for the Tennessee Association of Independent Schools.

If students were to attend St. George’s with money received through a voucher program, the admissions criteria would remain the same, according to Peters.

“Any issue with dynamic tentacles like this, we want to look at carefully,” he said, adding that it’s “complex.”

Peters is unsure of how Lee’s proposed plan would affect students and families already choosing private education. He said as the school challenges “critical thinking” in its students, administrators need to do the same when exploring vouchers.

He was interested in possible effects as St. George’s students come from 50 Zip Codes.

“We are fascinated by this and interested in conversations taking place … We are interested in anything that serves our mission and (fits) with the mission of this school,” Peters said.

<p class="p1"><strong><span class="s1">Ted Horrell</span></strong>

Ted Horrell

<strong>Tammy Mason</strong>

Tammy Mason

<strong>Jason Manuel</strong>

Jason Manuel

<strong>Dr. David A. Stephens</strong>

Dr. David A. Stephens

<p class="p1"><strong><span class="s1">John Aitken</span></strong>

John Aitken

<p class="p1"><strong><span class="s1">Bill Lee</span></strong>

Bill Lee

Topics

Education Education Savings Accounts Germantown Municipal School District Bartlett City Schools Lakeland School System Arlington Millington Schools Collierville Schools Jason Manuel David Stephens Ted Horrell Tammy Mason Bo Griffin John Aitken

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