It was only a matter of time before Bradley County Schools Superintendent Johnny McDaniel and Cleveland City Schools Director Martin Ringstaff joined the conversation.
“The legislation presented by Gov. Haslam would not affect Bradley County [or Cleveland] at this time because we have no failing schools,” McDaniel said. “[Haslam] is proposing the vouchers be used in systems taken over by the state for persistently underperforming schools.”
School vouchers are financial certificates a public school student can apply toward tuition at a private school.
The money for the vouchers is taken from the Basic Education Program funding provided for each student in the public school system. Vouchers do not necessarily cover the entire cost of tuition. A student may receive a $5,000 voucher to apply to a $16,000 private school tuition.
Haslam’s bill proposes a limited school voucher program in Tennessee. The program focuses on students who attend a public school in the bottom 5 percent of overall achievement in the state.
The bill is only applicable to students who qualify for free and reduced lunches in the bottom 5 percent of schools. The bill initially caps student involvement at 5,000 with room to grow to a cap of 20,000 by the 2016-17 school year.
The legislation comes after a group was formed to study vouchers at the request of Haslam. The legislation is being considered as a way to give students in failing schools educational options.
On a basic level, proponents of school vouchers claim the program allows for further academic freedom and equality while improving the education of students.
The opposition claims vouchers take needed money away from public schools and funnel them into a privatized institution which is not held to the same standards as public schools.
Proponents of public education have begun to speak out against the legislation. On the state level, the Tennessee School Board Association and the Tennessee Education Association have expressed opposition to public funds going to private schools.
Nationally, the American Association of School Administrators has also expressed opposition to voucher programs.
McDaniel said the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents, of which he is a part, has also expressed opposition to a voucher program being implemented.
Ringstaff said he agrees parents have the right to choose the best educational institution for their children.
“Parents have a right to put their child wherever they deem is the best place for them. I am not against that. I am against the public school funds going to private schools,” Ringstaff said. “I have a problem with that part.”
McDaniel said some groups are afraid moving funds to private schools will eventually affect state funding available to all school systems.
“Tennessee is already one of the states really underfunded compared to other states across the nation,” McDaniel said. “So to lose those dollars from public schools is more significant in Tennessee than it may be in some more highly funded states.”
Ringstaff said private schools are not held to the same state standards as public schools.
“I can understand a voucher system in the state of Tennessee if the private school which accepts the voucher also accepts the same accountability system we have,” Ringstaff said. “Hold the schools accountable. If the parents choose to put their students in a private school, it is their choice. Private schools should have to prove themselves like we do.”
He pointed out public school teachers are certified, whereas some private school teachers are not.
Ringstaff said private institutions do not have the accountability system of Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program, Common Core or End of Course exams.
Ringstaff added he is not opposed to assessments and standards. He said he believes they are needed within education.
“Lots of money go into public school systems. We have to be held accountable to the taxpayers, the city and the state to show we are doing everything in our power to make sure our public school system is perfect,” Ringstaff said. “I like accountability. I think there has to be accountability. It gives us measuring sticks on where we can get better.”
McDaniel said the school system is always looking to be better than before. Recent history of the systems shows a consistency in having well-performing schools.
The director of schools said the school system will continue to look for ways to improve and help students in subgroups reach higher academic success.
“Public schools educate all children,” McDaniel said.
Ringstaff shared a similar sentiment.
“In public school we guarantee a seat of education for every child living within [our district], and rightfully so,” Ringstaff said. “We will not turn a student away. In fact, we love having them all — all the diversity. We don’t care about socioeconomic standing. We feel that is the same great melting pot students will face in reality.”
Both McDaniel and Ringstaff said there is no proof a voucher system contributes to academic success.
“Show me one study out there that shows where vouchers have improved education, just one study where they put vouchers in and the education quality of the community jumped,” Ringstaff said. “They don’t exist. There is no proof, rhyme or reason vouchers are the answer.”
McDaniel said he still had questions about some of the aspects of the pending legislation. The director questioned if the vouchers would actually provide enough for an economically disadvantaged student to attend a good private school.
Ringstaff pointed out the BEP funding in one county differs from the amount offered in another county. He said a voucher offered to a Bradley County student may be $5,000 whereas a Williamson County student could receive a voucher for $10,000 due to the higher BEP rate.
Both McDaniel and Ringstaff said there are issues within the voucher system which still need to be resolved. While the vouchers do not currently affect either Cleveland or Bradley County schools, both men believe it is a matter of time.
“Our fear in education would be once vouchers gain any foothold over the next few years it will continue to expand,” Ringstaff said. “That is what usually happens in situations like this. They get their foot in the door and then they keep inching and inching and inching.”
McDaniel is positive about Bradley County’s standing.
“Our parents and our community seem to be satisfied with the job we do,” McDaniel said.