Are Tennessee’s public schools headed for extinction? Not if it’s up to Memphis teachers.
A group from Shelby County recently packed a House committee meeting room at the Legislative Plaza in an effort to turn back bills they consider damaging to their profession and the future of public education.
They couldn’t stop the panel from approving legislation to add teachers to the Little Hatch Act, prohibiting them from campaigning for public office on school time. But they feel their presence might impact a voucher bill to provide public funds to low-income students in struggling public schools so they can attend private institutions.
“When they sit and look out at us, it’s hard to lower the hatchet, as it were, on us,” says Sarah Kennedy Harper, a Memphis teacher and member of the Tennessee Education Association board of directors.
“But we will be back, and we’re going to continue to come back, and we’re going to continue to speak out against injustices that are being placed on my chosen profession as an educator.”
Harper and her peers consider the Little Hatch Act move and bills such as Rep. Bill Dunn’s voucher plan attacks on public education, one they’ve seen take place across the nation, along with efforts to disengage the Tennessee Education Association and lower its effectiveness as a bargaining tool with local school districts.
“I didn’t just happen into education. This is a passion, and because of teachers like me, we made them who they are today, and we want them to take this seriously,” Harper says of legislators, some of whom told the audience they are products of Memphis schools.
TEA spokesman Jim Wrye points toward several questionable aspects in the voucher bill:
One school falling short of state standards in a school system would allow every low-income child in that system to seek a voucher to attend a private school participating in the program.
Private schools would be able to reject any student, except for reasons of race and gender, enabling them to select students for athletic prowess or high academic achievement.
Private schools would not be required to administer the same tests as public schools, creating a questionable format for measuring success.
Earlier, voucher legislation by Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, passed the Senate Finance, Ways and Means Committee but not without an amendment allowing public school students to receive vouchers to cross county lines. It wasn’t void of criticism either.
“I just think it’s ridiculous,” said Sen. Thelma Harper, a Nashville Democrat. “Basically, what you’re doing is getting rid of public schools. Why don’t we just say we’re getting rid of public schools?”
“I just think it’s ridiculous that we would talk about not taking care of our public schools. Hell, we didn’t have no choice. You shouldn’t have no choice now. You should take care of public schools.”
Voucher bill moving in House
Dunn’s bill passed the House Education Administration and Planning Committee by an 8-5 vote Tuesday. It moves next to the Government Operations Committee.
Voucher legislation pushed by Gov. Bill Haslam failed the last two years in the House, including the 2014 session when representatives tried to expand it to cover students in the bottom 10 percent of failing schools rather than the bottom 5 percent.
The Knoxville Republican says he is miffed by the notion that his bill is an effort to undermine public education.
“I say that I have more faith and confidence in our public schools than the public school teachers do. I don’t think people are going to leave the schools en masse,” Dunn says. “This is for the student who’s not getting what they need, and it gives them another option
“To me, if you can help a kid, you put the student before the system. To me, it kind of worries me that a public school teacher would think that their schools are such that everyone would leave if given the opportunity. It really concerns me, and I don’t think it’s accurate.”
Dunn says Tennessee has some schools where 90 percent of the students are not proficient, and at least one high school in which the average ACT score is 13.7. Considering truancy laws require students to attend school, he says he has a “moral” obligation to give students an option to go to better schools.
He further states his legislation caps the number of students who can attend private schools using vouchers.
The bill would allow 5,000 scholarships the first year, with vouchers based on district per-pupil expenditures, and grow to 20,000 scholarships in 2018-19.
Dunn’s plan would allow $7,000 to be spent per student. The state would send $300 million to private schools over four years if the maximum number of students take advantage.
Haslam is supporting the Gardenhire-Dunn bill rather than one sponsored by Sen. Brian Kelsey, apparently because of rifts over Insure Tennessee and the way Kelsey handled last year’s voucher bill.
“We said all along our approach to vouchers was to take a very measured approach to start with, kids from low-performing schools in low-income families,” Haslam says. “So this is a measured way to get into that and see the impact.
“The other way to look at that is it’s not an attack on public education. This is a chance for parents to decide for themselves where they would like for their children to go. And I think everybody can understand that motivation as well.”
House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh says vouchers would be “a travesty of the first degree and yet another blow in the Republicans’ war on schools.”
House Democratic Caucus leadership contends no research shows students who receive vouchers do better in private schools than in public schools.
However, the Tennessee Federation for Children recently released a poll it conducted showing 59 percent of Tennessee voters back opportunity scholarship bills, up 8 percent from 2013.
The organization also states the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s Memphis chapter put together a 25,000-signature position backing education choice.
The group contends plenty of studies show students make gains when vouchers enable them to attend private schools.
Most recently, it cites a study titled “Experimentally Estimated Impacts of School Vouchers on College Enrollment and Degree Attainment,” which found black and Hispanic students receiving vouchers in 1997 enrolled in college within five years of high school graduation “at a rate 4 percentage points higher” than the study’s control group and earned bachelor’s degrees at a rate 2.7 percentage points higher than the control group.”
An earlier version of the study, done by Matthew Chingos and Paul Peterson, found black students went to college within three years of high school graduation at a rate 8.7 percentage points higher than the control group with full-time college attendance rates 8 percentage points higher.
Teachers in Tennessee, however, remain unconvinced. And with provisions added to the Senate version of the bill allowing students to cross district lines, some fear chaos could ensue.
As Harper from Memphis points out, “Now that the voucher bill is affecting every part of Tennessee, East, Middle and West, and it’s going to affect public dollars, I think everybody’s concerned because it’s not only going to affect Memphis.”
Sam Stockard can be reached at email@example.com.