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Opinion: Do school vouchers make public education better or worse?

Nick Lingerfelt and Isaac O. Weston

A school voucher is a government-funded scholarship redeemable for tuition fees at any school other than a public school a student could attend for free. Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee has said he wants to make school voucher legislation a part of his legislative agenda. Columnists Nick Lingerfelt and Isaac O. Weston debate the pros and cons of the potential school voucher bills.

Nick Lingerfelt: School vouchers divert money from public education

Gov. Bill Lee has said he supports introducing a school voucher program as part of his legislative agenda. School vouchers rely on publicly funded scholarships to send students to private schools.

Lee said he developed an interest in education policy after working with “inner city at-risk†youth organizations where he mentored a young man coming out of a “very troubled neighborhood.†He said he saw the need for school choice after he worked with the young man’s grandmother to have him moved from a traditional public school where he was “failing every class†into a nearby charter school where his progress improved. That young man is now in college.  

This experience led him to believe the best option for a child’s education is parental choice, which includes sending a child to a school outside the public education system.

The biggest issue with school vouchers is that it misses the whole problem in the first place: Why public schools have been failing. The answer to fixing the education system is not to start offering people money to go to a school outside of it.

Tennessee’s public schools’ success rate, as reported by the state’s own 2017-18 school year data, is 39.1 percent. That means less than half the students who attend a public school in this state score on track in state testing. While the graduation rate across the state is almost 90 percent, the students’ readiness to move onto college and/or a career is about 35 percent, according to the same data. Those numbers, in my opinion, should be even.

So no, our own school system is not really serving the young people of this state, but taking money out of our public school system is not the solution. Education is a right every child should have access to. It is not fair to pour money into a private school system when the public school system needs the funds more.

Shelby County Schools, since 2015, and Nashville Public Schools, since 2017, have been suing the State of Tennessee because they claim they are underfunded and the state is not following through with its obligation to provide children with a “free, adequate and equitable education.†The school districts from the state’s largest counties obviously do not feel like education has been a big priority for the leader of Tennessee’s executive branch.

Of course, the education might be “better†at some private schools, but if we allow funds to be taken from public schools so people can attend private schools, then that eliminates the need for a public school system in the first place. Tennessee should be working to provide a quality education to all its residents, not just the few who can afford it.

Former Gov. Bill Haslam instituted some of the most progressive education policies in the country during his two terms as governor. Community colleges are now free for any Tennessean to attend, a policy they do not have in states like California. Haslam said his successor needs to continue his legacy with a focus on education. I think Lee needs to think about how he can improve this state’s public K-12 education system.

I believe the children are our future. Fund the schools well, and the children will lead the way. If they fail, we can’t succeed. Funding our own public schools is the greatest public education policy of all.

Isaac O. Weston: School vouchers level the playing field

I have tutored in inner-city Memphis where fifth-graders performing at first-grade levels are most likely never going to sit in a class after the last day of eighth grade. I have also tutored in Williamson County, Tennessee, where I am from, and seen first-graders performing at third-grade levels who will definitely go to college. Memphis could benefit from school voucher systems.

During last summer, I spent a month with an educational ministry in Rwanda, which is better off than most of Africa, where students must pay or be sponsored to go to school at all. Zip codes, skin colors and parents’ incomes should never determine the education a child will receive, yet they all are factors today. School vouchers can eliminate these factors with their twofold effect by giving all kids the same educational access no matter their circumstance and by spotlighting good teachers.

“The people who lose most from the (current public education) system are the poor, the disadvantaged in large cities,†said Milton Friedman, an economist and Noble Prize winner who first proposed school vouchers in 1955.  “They are simply stuck, and they have no alternative.â€

Voucher systems are the best immediate solutions for cities to fix inequality of quality education, according to a May 2016 study done by EdChoice, an American education reform organization.

“The empirical evidence shows that choice improves academic outcomes for participants and public schools, saves taxpayer money, moves students into more integrated classrooms, and strengthens the shared civic values and practices essential to American democracy,†EdChoice said.

In fact, Washington D.C., which has the only federal-funded voucher system in the United States, has increased overall graduation rates by over 21 percent and parents of students have high levels of satisfaction and thought their choice school was safer than their default school, the US Department of Education reported.

“Many families use vouchers to avoid the ‘school-to-prison pipeline,’ the phenomenon in which children of color are poorly educated, subjected to racist treatment and treated like criminals in schools often ruled by gangs,†said ProCon.Org, a website that provides non-partisan information on all issues. “These children deserve better, and vouchers empower students to overcome racial and other disparities in their communities.â€Â 

Teachers are gauged by student  growth. The better test scores students have, the higher level a teacher is. Private schools typically have higher level teachers than public schools, and because there is no competition for schooling, administrators and teachers of public schools can be average and still have jobs. But if school vouchers are in play, these public schools will have to step up so that they can compete with the private schools and other great public schools. If all teachers perform at higher levels, the cycle of students not mastering standards can be broken.

If a pilot continued crashing the plane during flight simulations, you wouldn’t allow them to fly a commercial airliner where hundreds of lives are resting on the pilot’s shoulders. So why do schools continue employing low-level teachers who are not able to equip students for academic success? This can be resolved.

School vouchers will improve teaching practices, eliminate failing schools and complacent school districts, and at the same time, students will receive the same access to good quality education, regardless if they are a have or have-not. 

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