The Williamson County delegation discussed their stance, some differing, regarding the governor’s proposed Education Savings Account (ESA) legislation, modeled after voucher programs at the Williamson Inc. Legislative Update Friday at Columbia State Community College.
Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson, R-Franklin, passionately voiced his support of the ESA proposal as the sponsor of Senate Bill 795 (House Bill 939, companion bill) that would target only failing schools in the state.
House speaker Glen Casada, also a devoted supporter of the ESA bill, backed Johnson’s view, while Rep. Sam Whitson also shared his perspective, which differed from his peers.
The proposed legislation would affect the bottom 10 percent of struggling districts (or just five districts) in the state by allotting parents with an ESA in the amount of $7,300 to send their child to a private institution for the purpose of seeking a better education. The ESA would be funded through public school dollars, or Basic Education Plan (BEP) per pupil funds, generated from the public school district where the student is originally zoned to attend.
To make up for funding that public schools would lose through the ESA program, Gov. Bill Lee proposes a state investment of $25 million new dollars in public education during the first 3 years of the program’s implementation “to fill the gap” in funding for public schools that lose students.
However, some are worried that such as program of taking public school dollars would set a dangerous precedent for the state and possibly lead to more legislation that affects other district, not just failing districts.
Johnson, remains steadfast that this assumption is simply not so.
Despite the program’s focus on the state’s failing school districts, the Franklin Special School District took a preemptive measure by voting earlier this month to approve a resolution opposing ESA legislation, citing fundamental differences in their view of voucher programs.
“Anytime there is a proposal to take public money and put it into private entities, it is wrong,” FSSD Director of Schools David Snowden said.
Johnson built his case of support of ESAs Friday, which he says would come to the aid of students in failing schools and expressed his frustration with those who do not support the bill.
“Education choice works when it is targeted toward certain demographics,” Johnson said.
“The governor will replenish the funds to school districts that would lose students … so don’t make the argument that public schools are losing funds because they are not.
He reemphasized the dire need to help failing inner city children succeed in education.
“Tennessee is one of the fastest improving in the nation but that is not happening with poor minority students in these inner city school,” Johnson said.
“People are saying vouchers are bad for public education, but what about the kid? I am concerned about the child who is trapped in a failing schools and his parents don’t have the opportunity to improve that child’s life, to pursue the American Dream.
“So when I hear about a school board in Williamson County that passes a resolution opposing this initiative– do you understand the optics of that – we are the wealthiest, whitest county in the state, and we are saying we don’t want to do something to help inner city kids, who are poor and predominantly a minority, I say shame on you.”
The governor also proposed legislation that would create an authorization board to hear charter school applicants, instead of leaving the charter school authorization process to the oversight of Local Education Agencies (LEAs, or WCS in Williamson County). Whitson also opposes this legislation.
Casada expressed his agreement with Johnson and has also supported the bill from the beginning.
After the state spent $1.3 billion new dollars in public education under former Gov. Bill Haslam, according to Casada, it is still not raising the bar in failing districts.
“Let’s quit giving an unlimited amount of money to the failing schools let’s try something different,” Casada said.
“Maybe the problem is the school. Let’s take those kids out and give them a relief route, a vehicle to go to another school. If this doesn’t work, we will try something else.”
Whitson, however, presented a different scenario regarding voucher programs like the proposed ESA legislation.
“I know where my senator and speaker stand on this and even though we might differ, I believe they are committed to our public education,” Whitson said.
“I have a fundamental difference on the vouchers based on my campaign I started three years ago as a strong supporter of public schools … my issue comes down to the unintended consequences in what kinds of schools could open as a result.
“Are we ready for a Branch Davidian [a religious sect known mostly by a siege in Waco, Texas in 1993, involving radical leader David Koresch] school and what they promote? And then the government would force us to send taxpayer dollars to fund those schools. It will be out of our hands.”
Ogles also supports the governor’s ESA proposal and will support the bill, “unless” he sees “strong data” that it will hurt public schools.
“There have been some amendments to the bill, and I see it continually getting more palatable,” he said.
“I ran on [a platform of public education] and loved my public schools. I am a product of public education. And first and foremost, I always like to see public money going toward public education.
“However, there is some data that shows there are some extremely failing districts that we need to look at and strengthen and from a budget standpoint, we keep throwing money at those districts and they are not improving.
The bill has been approved by a few House committees and will eventually be voted upon by the full House and Senate. Next, the House Government Operations Committee will hear the bill April 1.