By Sally Absher
The General Assembly continued hearings on voucher bills last week. HB1049 (Dunn) (SB0999 by Gardenhire) was in the spotlight as the House Education Planning and Administration committee continued hearings from the prior week.

If you can’t attend these committee meetings in person, the videos stream live on the General Assembly website. HB1049 sponsor Rep. Dunn began his remarks by saying he had done “a little research to see what these bottom 5% of schools look like…it’s really very scary.” He said under the current truancy laws, “We have created an environment where a child has to go to that (school).”

He said, “The opportunity scholarship gives the child a better option.” Maybe he should have done a little more research.  Under RTTT, students in underperforming schools are already given the option of transferring to another school.

But it gets worse. He compared the opportunity scholarship to the Hope Scholarship, saying a family is given public dollars, and can decide what is best for that student. He calls it “the Hope Scholarship for K through 12.”

Does Rep. Dunn think the people of Tennessee are too ignorant to understand that the Hope Scholarship was set up with a separate funding source – the lottery, while the “opportunity scholarship” would take money – $148M over the next four years, and even more after that – out of the local public school district and give it to private institutions? Does Rep. Dunn even understand this?

He does concede that “when we talk about failing schools, we are not talking about failing teachers or failing principals. We are talking about failing communities…to improve the schools we’re going to have to improve the communities.” This is a great argument for Community Schools, but a terrible argument for vouchers.

He said “Right now we have school choice. And school choice means you move.” What? Does Rep. Bill Dunn, from Knox County, know how his own district operates? Any student in Knox County can transfer from any school, not just a school in the bottom 5%, to another public school (if there is space) in the district. And in many cases, transportation is provided.

He explained that to be eligible for a voucher, a student must attend a school that is in the bottom 5% and be on the free and reduced lunch program. The money available would be the BEP allotted amount for that student (BEP contributes $4,182 per pupil in Knox County). The private schools would have to be accredited.

An amendment to Dunn’s bill requires that these students take a “nationally accredited, norm-referenced test.”  Rep. Womack explains that this amendment allows the private schools to continue using the same curriculum (standards) and tests they currently use, from whatever accrediting body they use. No more common core for these special voucher kids?

He also confirmed that the private schools will not be required to use TVAAS, either. So now we are comparing apples to avocados. How can you even compare the two?

Rep. Craig Fitzhugh said “I have grave difficulty for our state to move into vouchers at this stage in the game. If we do this it will be eternally detrimental to our public school system.”

Fitzhugh explained that unlike the Hope Scholarship, “the pot of money for this program is the BEP K-12 funds. Tennessee is already at the bottom of the barrel in funding for education. We have already taken some of this meager public funding and given it to charters and virtual schools… This further depletes the funding for the public schools, and puts an insignificant amount of money in the private schools.”

After Dunn clarified that the bill includes language that could allow ANY student in a district that has an underperforming school to become eligible for one of 5,000 vouchers (up to the 20,000 cap), a vote was called and the bill passed 8 to 5. It will be heard in Government Operations Committee on March 31.

The House Education Instruction and Programs committee took up HB0138 (Moody) (SB 0027 by Gresham) last week. Known as the “Individualized Education Act,” this voucher plan is based on a similar plan in Florida, promoted by former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, and would allow any of Tennessee’s 120,000 students with an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) attend private school.

There were a lot of “very expensive suits” in attendance at this committee hearing last week. Nashville Pubic radio reports that the Beacon Center, a “free market think tank,” flew parents from Florida and Arizona to tell legislators how voucher money paid for tutors to help a homeschooled child with autism and paid for a blind student to “attend a top flight private school.”  A representative from Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education also testified in support.

A parent of a special needs student, testifying that TN private schools discriminate was interrupted by the Education Instruction and Programs committee chair in order to end the meeting on time. The expensive suits promptly left the room. The bill will be taken up again on March 31.

Tennesseans Reclaiming Educational Excellence (TREE) explains that HB0138 “is broader in scope and more devoid of accountability than any voucher proposal Tennessee has seen before.”

“This bill states that a parent of any child with an IEP, in exchange for a promise to not enroll the child in public school, may have BEP funds deposited into a bank account the parent controls. The parent is to use the funds to educate the child in some fashion, whether by enrolling in private school, purchasing an online learning program, hiring a tutor, or some other means. This bill specifically states that there will be NO regulations or standards applied to a participating educational provider. Private schools accepting this voucher are not required to be accredited or have any operating history. A provider need not actually provide the services called for in the child’s IEP. The bill calls for NO testing or reporting of educational results. ZERO accountability.”

TREE concludes, “This lack of accountability runs counter to all of the laws that have been passed in recent years requiring testing and accountability for our public schools. Why would our legislators allow our tax money to be spent without any accountability, after spending years trying to establish accountability in our schools?”