Last week, Governor Haslam gave his annual State of the State Address and, for a fleeting moment, it appeared that he was truly supporting public education. I certainly give him credit for saying all the right things and checking every box. Gov. Haslam supported fully-funding the Basic Education Program (BEP) Formula and giving public school teachers another raise--two things that all teachers staunchly support. He also unveiled a new initiative--the Reconnect Act--that will afford adults the same opportunity as high school students to attend a community college for free and earn a degree. All of these proposals, if successfully implemented, will be profoundly wonderful things for public education and business in this state.
Much like the Powerful Wizard of Oz, who turned out to not have any special powers at all, I skeptically wondered what was lurking behind that curtain. I didn’t have to wait long; the very next day, Rep. Bill Dunn (R-Knoxville) announced his plan to re-introduce nearly identical voucher legislation to what he sponsored last year, which Governor Haslam said he would sign if it passed through the Legislature. It’s dizzying trying to understand how a governor can simultaneously support Tennessee becoming “the fastest improving state in teacher pay” in the country and school voucher legislation that unscrupulously robs money from public schools and puts that money into the hands of businesses in the form of charter and private schools.
Last year’s voucher bill had unusually strong momentum, but it was stopped in its tracks by classroom teachers across the state, like myself. I called and e-mailed all of the members of the state house and senate education committees. A very small number--maybe three or four--actually called me back and wanted to learn more about why I oppose vouchers. While I’m proud to have played a role in defeating last year’s voucher bill, I resent having to play this political game every single year. A coalition lead by the Tennessee Education Association (TEA), the Tennessee School Board Association (TSBA), and the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents (TOSS) made it clear that Tennessee’s educators are unified in their view that vouchers will destroy our surging education system.
It’s noteworthy that Rep. Dunn doesn’t refer to them as vouchers in House Bill 336; he calls them “opportunity scholarships.” In so doing, he is putting a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Don’t be fooled. According to an EdNext 2016 survey, the 37% of the general public supports vouchers, whereas almost 50% support opportunity scholarships. Both of these percentages have dropped 15% in the last ten years. Public support for this program continues to wane because people have had the opportunity to see for themselves the harmful effects of voucher legislation that has passed in many states around the country.
This begs the question: Why are Rep. Dunn and Gov. Haslam advocating a voucher bill that the general public doesn’t support and that educators obviously oppose? I argue it’s the same reason why so many Republican U.S. Senators (including Tennessee’s two senators) stubbornly support Betsy DeVos for Education Secretary, despite a bipartisan union of concerned citizens flooding their phone lines and writing hundreds of thousands of letters in opposition. That reason is money. The DeVos family has donated $8.3 million to Republican U.S. Senators’ campaigns over the last two years. Likewise, powerful pro-voucher and pro-charter lobbying groups (like Devos’ group American Federation for Children) are extremely active on the state level and work hard to get legislation introduced and passed.
If Dunn and Haslam truly want to help Tennessee’s children, they would work with TDOE to destroy the silos of information, self-contained within each district, of what works for students and what doesn’t. If they wanted to help children succeed, they would eliminate the ridiculous A-F grading system that measures how well schools prepare their students for TNReady. This grading system has failed in Texas and needs to be rescinded in Tennessee before it is implemented. There’s already plenty of information out there on how well schools perform. Simplifying that into a single “grade” in nonsensical. If they wanted to help children succeed, then stick to Gov. Haslam’s original proposal of giving teachers raises and fully-funding the BEP, and then get out of the way and let us concentrate on what we do best--educating future generations.