On the morning of April 17th, a group of teachers gathered at Coffee County Central High School and Coffee County Middle School for a “Walk In” to raise awareness about the current Educational Savings Account (also known as voucher) bill that is working its way through the Tennessee Legislature. A “Walk In” is when teachers gather in front of the school building while they are off-duty before school starts and hold up signs for parents to see while dropping their children off at school. This event was organized by Mike Stein, the President of the Coffee County Education Association.
House Bill 939/Senate Bill 795, if passed, would rob over $110 million from public education while causing local property taxes to rise. Eligibility for the ESA program initially is limited in counties with at least three schools in the bottom 10% — but zoning in a bottom 10% school is not required. Due to state law, there will always be a list generated of the bottom 10% of schools. That will play a role in vouchers expanding to other counties across Tennessee. This has happened in other states.
In Arizona, 75 percent of all ESAs are used by the affluent families zoned for A or B rated schools. Most vouchers in Indiana now go to affluent families who never intended to send children to public schools. The ESA program is designed for families who already send children to private school or homeschool and does nothing to improve struggling schools across the state. In fact, those schools will be weakened under this current legislation.
Currently, taxpayers do not currently subsidize private school tuition, but as more families take ESAs for their incoming kindergartners who they never planned to send to a public school, a new ongoing cost will shift to local taxpayers. The Senate version of this bill will allow funds to be used for homeschooling, which has great potential for abuse. ESAs in other states have experienced a significant amount of fraud and abuse. These states believed they had proper safeguards in place to prevent fraud and abuse, but still lost hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars.
Additionally, students who use ESAs for private and homeschool are not held to the same accountability standards as public schools, putting those students at risk for falling behind their peers in traditional public schools. Private schools do not have the same certification and expertise requirements as public schools. In the House version, voucher students do not have to take state tests in Social Studies and Science, and in the Senate version students will not have to take any type of state test, which can be substituted for any nationally-normed test. ESAs and vouchers don’t work and actually harm student learning. Research clearly shows voucher students fall behind their peers who attend to private schools or homeschooling.
When Mike Stein e-mailed Rep. Rush Bricken stating his concerns about this bill, Mr. Bricken sent this reply: “I appreciate you taking the time to let me know how you feel about HB 939. I support and believe in public education. I am not fully for this legislation but want to wait to see what comes out of committees before I finally decide.” Despite all of the pitfalls of this legislation, Rep. Bricken is hesitant to do what many other lawmakers have done and stand on the side of public education and against this bill. He will vote on this bill within the next few days and can be reached at (615) 741-7448 and firstname.lastname@example.org. If you don’t live in Coffee County, you can quickly contact your representative by going to https://actionnetwork.org/letters/no-to-vouchers.