To be successful in gaining public support, public education must have the support of taxpayers, voters, and parents. Education is not a one-size-fits-all system and what may work for one child may not be the best for another. It is crucial for parents to participate in their child's educational journey, keep an open line of communication with teachers, and be flexible in adapting their approach to ensure their child's future success.
In this world, nothing is certain except death and taxes. In education, Governor Bill Lee ignores public schools and educators and prioritizes school choice, often couched in accountability. Lee should be credited for efforts in raising teacher salaries and reducing obstacles that hindered salary increases. He failed to address offensive remarks made by the Hillsdale College president, which outraged public school teachers and colleges. Tennessee educators deserved support from Governor Lee. He needs to meet with real educators, not handpicked people in photo ops or pre-selected supporters.
Governor Lee has embraced two major school choice options for Tennessee families. In addition to expanding charter schools, Lee has advocated for state-funded scholarships for low-income families to use for education, including attending private schools. Education Committee Chair Mark White will propose expanding Tennessee's school voucher program statewide, from three counties to all 95, according to the Tennessean.
We previously identified flaws in Governor Lee’s voucher program. This includes a lack of affordable private schools and transportation issues that would hinder low-income families. We stressed this to policymakers. Currently, the cost of most private schools exceeds the amount of the voucher. In a December 2021 press conference, Governor Lee proclaimed that his new funding formula was not about vouchers. Is this still true?
Private schools will eventually be subjected to new regulations if they receive taxpayer money. In addition, there is no guarantee that the current program has effectively demonstrated improved achievement thus far. Further research is needed. In addition, participating schools do not enroll many students with special needs who will require more resources.
Student First Technologies, a company without prior state-level experience, manages the education savings accounts and voucher program under a $3.675 million, five-year contract signed in May 2023. The government must provide affordable services to citizens. Outsourcing should only be done when necessary and with experienced personnel. Accountability is crucial, and there is a discernable lack of accountability here.
According to a survey conducted in July 2023, voters in Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, and North Carolina showed significant support for public alternatives to traditional schools. The survey, which was commissioned by Democrats for Education, revealed that 64 percent of Democrats and 66 percent of unaffiliated voters favored public charter schools. This type of school choice resonates with voters. The survey participants also expressed their support for public magnet schools and career academies. On the other hand, vouchers had little support. The survey's findings are consistent with those of other states, including Tennessee.
Despite low student participation, Governor Lee will continue to seek to expand Tennessee's scholarship programs. Does a lame-duck governor, even with Chairman White’s support, have the political muscle to drive his education agenda through the Tennessee General Assembly? That remains to be seen in an election year.
What should public schools do? They must become proactive. It is crucial for public schools to acknowledge that the option of school choice is here to stay. Failure to understand parental expectations could lead to the loss of students and funding.
We support expanding public school choice options, including magnet schools, career academies, and open enrollment policies along with other public options. Public schools need better collaboration with businesses, industry, and nonprofit organizations. Schools should actively engage with homeschooling families and provide opportunities for their children to participate in regular classes, including vocational and technical programs, either at their designated school or at another school with available capacity, as per open enrollment policies.
Open enrollment allows families to select the best education setting for their child, regardless of their income or location. Tennessee policymakers must consider expanding K-12 public education options through open enrollment policies, which would allow students to transfer to any public school with available space. State lawmakers should prioritize this over expanding the voucher program.
Parents should have greater control over their children's education by being allowed to transfer them to schools either within or outside their district, using interdistrict or intradistrict public school choice options. Interdistrict policies give students the option to attend public schools anywhere within their state. or a defined region. Intradistrict policies allow choice among schools within a student’s designated district. Agreements would be necessary between districts. There may be fees involved in this process, which is the current policy.
Most states have implemented policies regarding open enrollment. To be fair, school districts offer options to parents such as public magnet schools, career academies, district-supported charter schools, Advanced Placement (AP) Programs, International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma Programs, and increasing dual enrollment options. These options need to be expanded.
I am proud of public education in Tennessee. However, we have an obligation to continually assess whether our system is meeting the education needs of the 21st century. School choice is not going away. Districts need to get in front of this debate, and parents need to speak up now.
JC Bowman is the executive director of Professional Educators of Tennessee.