On Tuesday, March 14, I had the pleasure of spending some time at Legislative Plaza, where laws are made for the state of Tennessee.
I didn’t just show up on any random day (although I definitely could do that); this was a day on the Hill, as they call it, for teachers who are TEA (Tennessee Education Association) members on Spring Break to come, observe committee meetings, and meet with legislators. TEA calls it “Civication,” and they offer travel reimbursement for teachers to come to Nashville on the Tuesday of their Spring Break, when Tennessee school districts have their various breaks in March and April. It’s a great opportunity for teachers to learn more about how state lawmakers do what they do. Though I’m not a teacher anymore, I still wanted to join them, and I’m glad I did.
The big issue for the day was vouchers.
Republican legislators in this state have been trying – unsuccessfully – to pass voucher legislation for the past several years. They just won’t give up. Or rather, their donors won’t let them give up. Anyhow, during last year’s legislative session, they did manage to pass limited voucher legislation that only pertained to students with IEPs. As that law went into effect, it didn’t seem to be successful at all, with fewer than 40 families statewide opting to take this voucher.
In this year’s session, there are several bills in process that pertain to vouchers. Here is a list of some of them, courtesy of Andy Spears over at Tennessee Education Report:
SB161/HB126 – Senator Brian Kelsey/Rep. Harry Brooks
This bill would create a pilot voucher program in Shelby County. Voucher advocates have been pushing some version of a statewide voucher program for the past four years. So far, they haven’t been successful. Now, they are trying to limit the plan to Shelby County to start in hopes they can garner additional votes.
SB380/HB336 — Sen. Todd Gardenhire/Rep. Bill Dunn
This is the voucher bill that has failed the past four years. It would allow students from districts with at least one “priority school” to apply for a voucher.
SB573/HB715 — Sen. Dolores Gresham/Rep. Debra Moody
This bill would expand eligibility to the failing IEA voucher program. Despite claims of widespread demand for this program, so far, only 39 students have taken these vouchers.
SB987/HB1109 — Sen. Kelsey/Rep. John DeBerry
This bill would also change (expand) eligibility for the IEA vouchers. It would allow students who had not previously attended public schools to obtain this voucher.
SB395/HB460 – Gresham/Rep. Roger Kane
This is an Education Savings Account (ESA) bill with no eligibility restrictions. This bill would allow the parents of any student to convert their BEP funding into a debit card or have the money wired into a checking account to use for approved education expenses.
There are many things that bother me about voucher legislation. But here are the two biggies:
- Vouchers haven’t worked anywhere they’ve been implemented. The evidence is clear. See also here, here, and here.
- Look who opposes vouchers: Teachers! You know, those people who actually do the work of educating our children! They know a thing or two about what is needed in public education, and we should be listening to them! (I should know…. I was a teacher, in case you didn’t know!)
But seriously, if the people we trust to educate our children believe vouchers would be harmful to our schools AND if there is plenty of evidence showing that vouchers aren’t successful, then why???? Why do they keep getting proposed?
I just wish that politicians, regardless of party affiliation, could see the view from where I stand. Because they would see a pretty clear picture: On one side, supporting vouchers, you have legislators (usually a lot of older white men, by the way, who clearly are not public school parents!), donors, and lobbyists. And on the other side, opposing vouchers and, more importantly, calling for support of our public schools, you have the majority of the general public – including teachers and public school parents, whose voice matters most in this area. I mean, it’s crystal clear – or it should be! – which side legislators should be listening to, but sadly, many of them aren’t listening.
From The Tennessean:
The union’s poll said that, of the 6,510 respondents, 59.5 percent rejected private school vouchers while 29 percent approved.
“I’ve rarely seen such a strong negative opinion. It is clear Tennesseans do not like or want school vouchers,” said Jim Wrye, TEA’s lobbyist, in the news release.
While on the Hill today, I got to speak in person with my State Senator, Steve Dickerson. I found him to be in an increasingly rare variety of politician: a reasonable one. And by reasonable, I mean he seemed to be open minded on some issues, while being strong in his feelings on other typical partisan issues, but still very much interested in current research, data, public input, and polling on the issues. Though he is a Republican, my impression is that he is someone who weighs the evidence carefully before making a decision in most cases, and he seemed to understand and appreciate the importance of truth and facts. While he and I do not agree on every issue, I had an enjoyable conversation with Senator Dickerson.
We discussed my history as a teacher and why I quit, vouchers, the overemphasis on standardized testing, how much time is spent in the classroom on tests and test prep, and even a little bit about accountability. We both agreed we didn’t have nearly enough time at that moment to really delve deep into these issues, but he seemed genuinely interested in what I had to say and encouraged me to stop by anytime and stay in touch. I will do so. In fact, one big takeaway from my meeting with him was that we all need to be doing this – contacting and/or meeting with our elected officials to let them know the true stories of how their legislation affects real life. Public input matters, especially at the state and local levels.
Thank you, Senator Dickerson, for giving me a little hope in politics these days. I know we won’t always agree, but I do believe you want to hear from your constituents and that our input won’t fall on deaf ears. And for that, I am grateful.
For me, the results of the national election have brought about some very scary times. But one silver lining is that people seem to be more engaged than ever in the political process. So now is the time to speak up and support public education because it is clear that this new administration is determined to destroy it. Just check out their proposed budget.
Public education is one of the things that makes us great, and our public schools need support. They aren’t failing. They’ve been put on life support in many cases, and instead of helping, Republicans (and some neoliberal Democrats as well) seem hell bent on tearing them down. But that is not the answer. We need to double down on our support. We need to look at expanding resources – like support staff, wraparound services, and Community Schools – for our neediest schools. We need to move beyond the education reform of the Bush (No Child Left Behind) and Obama (Race To The Top) eras and get back to trusting our teachers and schools.
We need people to speak up in support of public schools and against vouchers. Contact your legislators at the federal and state levels when there is proposed voucher legislation. The Network for Public Education, the BATs, and the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools make it easy to get involved. In Tennessee, Tennesseans Reclaiming Educational Excellence (TREE) make it easy to contact your elected officials. In Nashville, choose to work with grassroots groups like the Middle Tennessee Coalition Advocating for Public Education (Mid-TN CAPE) and attend one of their events.
Get involved. Don’t give up hope. Our schools and teachers need our support. Our children are depending on us now more than ever.