In a move that surprised no one, Tennessee Governor-elect Bill Lee has announced that he plans on promoting a school voucher system, in the guise of "school choice," when he takes office next year. The Shelby County Democratic Party (SCDP) is vigorously opposed to such a plan. Not only do vouchers rob funds from the public school system, they benefit mostly affluent families who already have choices for their children's' education or for-profit charter schools who prey on poorer neighborhoods.
Unlike our public school system, the private schools where the vouchers are to be used are not required to take all applicants, and they don't always have to adhere to the same educational standards as public schools. Parents who might want to take advantage of the vouchers are often unable to do so, either because the vouchers don't cover the full cost of attendance (some private schools in Shelby County have fees of $15,000 or more) or due to transportation issues.
Very few private schools offer free transportation, and the travel time to private schools is often considerable, especially for the disadvantaged families that the voucher system purports to "help." Parents, especially single parents, with tight schedules are frequently unable to take advantage of vouchers because they don't have a reliable way to get their children to the school and home again. This is true for both urban students who live in the "wrong" part of town, as well as rural students, many of whom not only rely on buses to get to school currently, but in quite a few counties don't even HAVE a private school to consider.
For-profit charter schools do not have the same level of accountability as public schools. They prey on poorer neighborhoods and do not provide a higher quality education than public schools in the same areas. Like private schools, for-profit charter programs are not required to accept every student and/or provide extra services which a child may require. They provide limited or no free transportation and tend to ignore rural counties.
It is not yet clear if the schools that accept vouchers will be required to provide special education services. A student with special needs may be unable to benefit from the services to which they have a right under Section 504 and ADA if they use vouchers to attend a private or charter school. It is not yet clear that charter and private schools are required to accept children with existing 504 plans or IEPs, nor is it clear if these schools would be required to create either plan should the need arise during a school year if they accept vouchers.
Vouchers do actually help one demographic quite a bit--the parents of children who are already attending private schools. For these folks, vouchers are basically "coupons," serving as a substantial discount on something they were already paying for. Who are these families? Largely they are affluent urban and suburban families, who don't "need" the discount that Governor-elect Lee is proposing.
The SCDP urges ALL legislators, both in Shelby County and throughout the state, to continue to oppose any voucher program that takes taxpayer funds away from public education and funnels the money to private schools.