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The evidence is clear: Private school vouchers are a bad investment for Shelby County Schools

school3The Coalition of Large School Systems (CLASS), which includes the Shelby, Davidson, Knox and Hamilton county school systems, opposes legislation that would create a voucher program in Tennessee to pay for private school tuition.

CLASS opposes spending money collected for public schools on private school tuition, and the Tennessee Constitution is clear that public money should be spent on public schools. The Constitution of the State of Tennessee requires that the Tennessee General Assembly “provide for the maintenance, support and eligibility standards of a system of free public schools” – there is no mention of the maintenance and support of private schools.

This year voucher proponents have proposed a “pilot” voucher program for Shelby County Schools, and this bill is currently pending in the Tennessee General Assembly. Since voucher proponents have previously introduced legislation that would create a statewide voucher program, there should be no doubt that the long-term goal of voucher proponents is to expand this pilot program across the state.

Proponents say that they want to offer choice to students “trapped in failing schools” through the proposed voucher program. It should be noted that students zoned to attend Shelby County Schools have more choices than any other school district in the state. In fact, in 2015 there were over 6,200 choice transfers made by students. Currently, Shelby County students can choose from 46 optional schools, and – by the end of 2017 – almost 80 charter schools. Many of these charter schools have dozens of unused seats.

Students and parents hoping for an additional choice through publicly funded private schools should understand that the ultimate choice belongs to the private schools, which will choose whether or not to accept public school students. Private schools accepting vouchers will determine how many students and which students they accept.

The timing of this voucher proposal is curious. Since 2007, when Tennessee began improving educational standards and assessments through the Tennessee Diploma Project, our state has become a national model for standards and accountability measures for public education. As Governor Haslam has pointed out many times, the results of these efforts have been significant.

Vouchers are being proposed at a time when Tennessee students, teachers and schools are making historic strides in achievement and graduation rates. For the last two National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reports (known as the Nation’s Report Card), Tennessee students have been the fastest improving students in the country. In 2013, Tennessee became the fastest improving state in the country on the Nation’s Report Card for math and reading. In 2016, Tennessee students were the fastest improving in the nation in science. Since 2013, the graduation rate in Shelby County has grown over three times faster than the statewide graduation rate. Finally, the iZone, Shelby County Schools’ turnaround strategy for struggling schools, consistently leads all state turnaround efforts, including outperforming the State’s Achievement School District, and has become a nationally recognized turnaround model.

Since winning the Race to the Top competition in 2010, the State of Tennessee has spent tens of millions of dollars from that $500M federal grant developing a new accountability system for students, teachers and schools. This new accountability system will ensure taxpayers are getting results from tax dollars invested in public education. This voucher proposal, as currently amended, would encourage public school students to avoid these accountability measures. Should these same accountability measures be required for voucher students, many private schools have made it clear they would not participate in a voucher program.

Vouchers are also being proposed at a time when the evidence could not be clearer that private school voucher programs do not accomplish the stated goals of voucher proponents. Three recent studies of voucher programs in other states show that voucher students are actually performing worse in private schools than they did in the public school they had last attended.

In late 2015, researchers found that math students in the Indiana voucher program “experienced significant losses in achievement.” Indiana voucher students also saw no improvement in reading.

In early 2016, a study of the Louisiana voucher program showed that public elementary school students who started at the 50th percentile in math and then used a voucher to transfer to a private school dropped to the 26th percentile in a single year.

Last June, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank and proponent of school choice, released a study of the Ohio voucher program. That study found that “[s]tudents who use vouchers to attend private schools have fared worse academically compared to their closely matched peers attending public schools.”

The Tennessee Department of Education recently submitted its ESSA plan to the US Department of Education, and it includes this statement:

“Tennessee empowers district and school leaders to craft solutions tailored to their local context, guided by evidence-based strategies that impact student achievement.”

This statement is right on the mark and has proven true in the very district that is targeted by the pilot voucher program. Considering the most recent evidence indicates that vouchers negatively impact student achievement along with the fact that local education leaders and a super-majority of the local legislative delegation oppose the pilot program, private school vouchers should not be a “solution” in which Tennessee invests.

ROBERT GOWAN is an attorney and serves as legislative counsel for CLASS (Coalition of Large School Systems).

TONY THOMPSON is an attorney and serves as legislative counsel for Shelby County Schools.

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