Tennessee's Next Governor: Interest In School Vouchers Dims

Feb 14, 2018
Originally published on February 14, 2018 8:14 am

In recent years, one of the biggest debates in Tennessee has been whether to give families vouchers for their children to attend private schools.

But after state lawmakers' failed attempts to get a plan through, interest in the issue among the candidates for governor seems to be diminishing.

Half of the six major candidates to succeed Gov. Bill Haslam say they have no intention to restart a debate that seems to be receding. The others say the idea is still worth studying, but none has a plan to put forward.

And without those specifics, vouchers are unlikely to go anywhere in Tennessee. For many years, Republicans in the state legislature have said they agreed in principle with vouchers — at their urging Haslam's office even drafted a plan once — but the details always trip them up.

Even voucher supporters have been divided between those who want to make them broadly available and those who say they should be limited to low-income students zoned for poorly performing schools.

Opponents argue either approach would drain money — and possibly also the most talented students — from public schools, leaving children whose families can't afford the private school costs that vouchers won't cover in underperforming and underfunded education systems.

Some studies have also questioned the effectiveness of vouchers. That's slowed, but not entirely stopped, the spread of voucher programs. Fourteen states now offer vouchers. Maryland joined the club just two years ago.

No debate

To understand how much the debate over vouchers has receded, consider a recent gubernatorial forum on education. Over the course of an hour, the candidates weren't asked about vouchers — not once. That's a far cry from the 1990s and early 2000s, when vouchers were often hailed as the future of public education.

Later, in follow-up interviews, some candidates for governor said the idea is still worth exploring. That pro-voucher camp includes Congressman Diane Black and businessmen Bill Lee and Randy Boyd.

"So, I believe in competition and choice," Boyd says. "As a businessperson, I think the more competition we have, the better."

But if he were elected, Boyd commits only to let local school systems try out vouchers. Black says she'd study it. Lee says he'd pilot a program.

On the other hand, House Speaker Beth Harwell, a veteran of the legislature's fights over vouchers, says she's ready to move on.

"You know, we have discussed this for seven years in the state legislature, and we've never been able to design a plan that's suitable to Tennessee and can pass the Tennessee General Assembly," Harwell says. "So, it would not be my priority."

Harwell suggests the focus should instead be on funding public schools. That's the same argument House Democratic Leader Craig Fitzhugh makes. As does Karl Dean, even though he pushed alternatives to traditional education when he was Nashville's mayor.

"I do not support vouchers," he says. "I believe that what vouchers will end up doing is taking money away from the public education system, which is already underfunded."

Unless one candidate decides to push the issue of vouchers, it's unlikely the 2018 governor's race is going to reignite the debate.

QUESTION: Do you favor a voucher program for K-12 education, and if so, how would you implement vouchers during your administration?


Beth Harwell: You know, we have discussed this now for seven years in the legislature, and we've never been able to design a plan that's suitable to Tennessee and can pass the Tennessee General Assembly. So, it would not be my priority, and I think the sponsors of the bill last year have said they're not going to move forward this year, and they'd rather put the resources in our traditional public school system.

Bill Lee: My children were home-schooled and public-schooled and private-schooled, and I'm involved with a kid that's in a charter school, so I'm really not as concerned about the type of school as I am in the quality of the education.

I do think that a voucher program would give an opportunity for parents to have a choice, and I think when parents have freedom and choice, then not only their children (and) their life is improved, the bar is raised for everybody.

So, a pilot program, in some of the worst performing schools, I think we should look at that, if it might raise the bar.

Diane Black: I think there's not one-size-fits-all. I think there's plenty of room to talk about all the various ways you can address children's needs. I don't have anything specific to give you today, but there are voucher programs that have worked in other states, and we certainly want to look and get best practices.

Randy Boyd: So, I believe in competition and choice. As a businessperson, I think the more competition we have, the better. However, I also believe in local communities and parents making the final decision. So as a governor, I want to make sure we put all the tools in the toolbox: vouchers, community schools, charters, in the toolbox. But at the end of the day, it'll be about the parent and the communities making the choice which of those tools that they use.

We create the tools in the toolbox. The parents and the communities are going to make the decision how to implement it in their area.


Karl Dean: I do not support vouchers. I believe that what vouchers will end up doing is taking money away from the public education system which is already underfunded.

Craig Fitzhugh: Well, the answer is no. I have not favored vouchers mainly for financial reasons. We're funded 46th in the country on public education, and we can't afford to take money out of that pot that's not full yet and move it to the private sector. It just won't work, and I think you'll end up having a less-than-best public school and I think it's not going to be enough to pay for a quality private education, either. So the answers is, no, on both accounts.

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