The Oak Ridge City Council on Monday will consider opposing the use of public funds for private schools unless certain conditions are met.
The Oak Ridge Board of Education has already taken a position. In November 2016, the Board of Education said it opposed the taking of funds from public education in any Tennessee community unless the local school board agrees, there is statutory assurance that schools receiving the funds will comply with the same curriculum and testing standards required of public schools, and until the Basic Education Program is “adequately funded” by the Tennessee General Assembly.
There has been increased discussion of the potential use of school vouchers, at least in part because of the nomination and confirmation of Betsy DeVos as the new U.S. education secretary.
In a memo to City Council members, Oak Ridge City Manager Mark Watson said the Tennessee General Assembly has debated the merits of implementing a school voucher system for many years as a way to provide quality education for all students in the state.
“This system would allow a freedom of choice for all students to choose to leave their geographical-centered public school to another school, taking the state-allocated funds for that public school system to the new system, be it public or private,” Watson said.
But the City of Oak Ridge, one of 27 public school systems in Tennessee, is “vitally concerned” about the impact that such a change would have on the community, Watson said. The Oak Ridge school system is controlled by contributions and some oversight by the city, he said.
“Financially, the city prides itself in the investment it makes in the educational school system,” Watson said. “This investment far exceeds the per-capita student investment made by the State of Tennessee, which becomes heavily dependent upon federal resources and limiting state sources.
“Because the City of Oak Ridge has such an outstanding school system, we can envision a school system (such as Oak Ridge) that is ‘chosen’ by participants in a school voucher program and only paying a portion of the costs borne by the general taxpayers of Oak Ridge. The city questions where this deficiency will be made up in the planned voucher program…Will the municipal taxpayer have to absorb this cost? Such decisions through legislation must be addressed and funded. Unfunded mandates are not acceptable.”
Watson has previously cited as an example a student in a district that spends about $6,000 per student wanting to go to school in a district that spends about $12,000 per student. Who would make up the difference? Watson asked rhetorically.
“Legislative discussions appear to philosophically create artificial competition among public schools and encourage an unregulated private education industry to seek such vouchers (money) and take away from school systems,” Watson said in the memo to City Council. “As a municipal school system, Oak Ridge finds that diversionary impacts on the educational costs within our city or the loss of students to adjacent academies or private religious schools will exceed the capacity of our community to pay for and pass the burden on to others or the state. The City of Oak Ridge does not accept that the State of Tennessee is ready to assume the social, financial, and administrative burdens associated with the such a change in the constitutionally mandated education requirements in Tennessee.”
The memo said the city is opposed to the use of vouchers within the Tennessee educational system.
“We believe the Oak Ridge community must have a level playing field as for testing and curriculum, along with a fully funded Basic Education Program inclusive of local tuition costs,” Watson said.
The resolution to be considered by City Council on Monday calls for the following conditions to be met before any public education funds are used for private schools:
- The local school board agrees.
- A level playing field is established, and there is statutory assurance that schools receiving the funds will comply with the same curriculum and testing standards required of public schools.
- The Basic Education Program is fully funded by the Tennessee General Assembly.
- School vouchers would fully fund standard rates of tuition for all school systems.
The resolution also cites the loss of money from the new state law phasing out the Hall Income Tax, which helps support Oak Ridge Schools through the city’s General Fund, and a proposal to further cut the sales tax on groceries by another half percent, “resulting in a reduction of state-shared revenues with local governments, many of which maintain public school systems.”
In a December 1 letter to Oak Ridge City Council and other local governments and school boards, the Oak Ridge Board of Education said voucher programs “negatively impact public schools by taking scarce resources and redirecting them to private, sometimes for-profit entities that are not held to the same accountability standards as public schools.
“There is significant concern that if very permissive voucher legislation passes, there will be for-profit schools opening all over the state, being very selective in their admissions. We simply ask that no voucher program be created until schools receiving public funds be subject to the same requirements and accountability standards as public schools.”
Any funding issue that has a negative impact on schools will create a greater need for local funding, the letter said.
The City Council meeting on Monday starts at 7 p.m. in the Oak Ridge Municipal Building Courtroom. See the agenda here.
More information will be added as it becomes available.
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