By Tammy Grissom
A school voucher is a publicly funded credit or certificate whereby a student may be enrolled in a private school and apply the credit to tuition.
So, why should Tennessee taxpayers care?
- Vouchers use your money to help pay for a student to go to a private school that answers to private administrators and not you, the taxpayer. Public schools must answer to the people and are held accountable for the use of local, state, and federal educational tax money.
- Article XI, Section 12 of the Tennessee Constitution specifically states, “The General Assembly shall provide for the maintenance, support, and eligibility standards of a system of free public schools.” Nowhere in our Constitution is the General Assembly directed to take taxpayer money and use it for a voucher system so parents can use public money to send their children to private schools.
- Private schools are not public institutions, and without proper oversight, the “qualifications and standards” for students may fall short of expectations and undermine the fundamental idea of equality in education. Vouchers require the public to supplement these standards even if they are contrary to state and federal education law.
- Vouchers force the public to support two drastically different educational systems, one over which the public has no oversight.
We constantly hear about “parental choice” and how vouchers are needed because they are the only way parents will have a choice about where they send their child to school. Proponents of vouchers say they will create a competitive marketplace where parents and students have a choice outside of the public school system.
As a parent, I have always had the choice of where to send my children to school. I choose the public school system; however, I have friends that have chosen to send their children to private schools. That is their right and their choice. But even though my friends have made that choice, they, along with every citizen of Tennessee, is still obligated to support our constitutionally mandated public school system regardless of where their children attend. Why…because all Tennesseans benefit from public schools.
Public schools raise our citizens out of poverty and ignorance, and make them solid, responsible, taxpaying members of our community. Citizens who care about our communities and want the very best for their children. Civilized citizens who understand and observe the rule of law. Education makes the difference.
Vouchers are unfair. They are little more than a boon to a small group of private school operators who will deprive a vast majority of Tennessee citizens of the much-needed funding to support their local public school districts.
Consider this. Just because a parent is eligible for and receives a voucher doesn’t mean that parent will be able to enroll their children in a private school. Public schools are open to all Tennessee children, but private schools carefully choose their students. A student applying for a seat in a private school must meet certain “standards and qualifications” in order to secure a place in the school…regardless of whether the child has a voucher. These enrollment policies may be quite restrictive, and private schools may refuse to enroll a child for any reason.
The public school system provides two critical elements that are not present in a private school setting: the right to attend school as guaranteed in the state Constitution, and access to resources that ensure the education and growth of all Tennessee children. It is imperative that public school systems continue to operate and provide these opportunities. Removing funds from public schools through a school voucher system hinders these goals and ultimately steals opportunities from all students.
Vouchers create a system that is frightening. As a state, we must not drift apart, we must instead invest in efforts to help us grow together. We need to focus our attention on continuing to improve our public education system by embracing educational reforms that work, thus raising our learning levels. There is little chance that economic opportunities will improve among key segments of our population if we go to a voucher system. In fact, vouchers will surely do more harm than good.
The Tennessee School Boards Association is dedicated to the highest standards of public education and fervently believes that locally elected boards of education, representing the interests of their communities, are the most effective way to accomplish that goal.
We urge our General Assembly to reject any attempts to institute a school voucher program in Tennessee and instead focus on the constitutional mandate to provide a public education system that will ensure hope for a better life for our students and our citizens.
Tammy Grissom is executive director of the Tennessee School Boards Association.