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MARTIN (April 13) — State Representative Andy Holt (R-Dresden) addressed approximately 100 persons during a multi-hour forum concerning Tennessee’s proposed Education Savings Account at …
MARTIN (April 13) — State Representative Andy Holt (R-Dresden) addressed approximately 100 persons during a multi-hour forum concerning Tennessee’s proposed Education Savings Account at the Watkins Auditorium on the campus of the University of Tennessee at Martin.
The audience consisted of mostly teachers and administrators at public schools, a few parents, and members of the news media. The event was organized by Dwayne Ervin, a teacher at Hollow Rock-Bruceton.
Holt, wearing a cowboy hat, sat on the stage at the Watkins Auditorium as persons asked him questions about the legislation, introduced by new Governor Bill Lee. Holt had helped his father-in-law conduct an auction earlier that day. Holt set aside up to six hours to address the concerns.
Persons who had questions and comments asked those one at a time as they came to the microphone, stated their name, and asked their questions. It was a respectful exchange, with Holt agreeing to disagree with some of the comments. He did agree teachers and students in public schools are burdened with too many tests.
It would affect only four counties with “failing” school districts in metro areas, does not affect home-schoolers, and will provide funding for up to 5,000 students in the first year. Those students would be selected by a lottery and must come from a family of low socioeconomic conditions. The $7,500 payment covers school-related curriculum and supplies, is paid quarterly, and does not come to the parents as cash or a debit card. It must go toward state-approved schools.
Representative Holt said the students would be selected by lottery if the number exceeds the allocated number of 5,000 students. He said he believes the students should have an opportunity to escape their failing schools. He compared the relatively small number of 5,000 to the story of the starfish on the beach. While hundreds lie dying on the beach, a man made a difference in the lives of a few by throwing back to the ocean. A good education gives the students an opportunity in life and possibly a way to stay out of jail. He said he grew up in grinding poverty and personally knew the struggle of these students. He agreed students in northwest Tennessee attend good public schools, none of which are in the failing category.
Teachers and administrators indicated public schools lack adequate funding, the teachers are burdened with many tests and requirements, and students are subjected to many tests that the proposed ESA legislation does require for the students who accept state money for private schools. The legislation does not require private schools to accept students with special needs, which are often very costly for the local school districts to educate. ESAs in other states have not proved to be as successful as the public schools. They suggested giving the proposed $25 million to public schools for targeted improvements.
Randy Frazier, director of Weakley County Schools, said the state indicates the Basic Education Program (BEP) funding is at 100 percent for the public schools. However, the public schools are subject to changes in the funding formula and additionally, unfunded mandates. Tennessee eliminated the after-school tutoring programs and lacked adequate funding for nurses.
Tennessee schools have some of the best performing schools, but are in the bottom 10 percent in funding nationwide, said the director. Presently, Weakley County has 35-40 unfunded positions in the school. Weakley County Schools continue to witness a decline in enrollment because there are no jobs for the parents, who move for better opportunities. Three hundred children receive extra food from a volunteer backpack program each week. That is funded through the community.
“We are not getting what we need,” said Frazier. “Public education has become the whipping boy of politics.” He added the “public school is the lifeblood of the community.”
For several years, northwest Tennessee has consistently scored with the highest percentage of unemployment in the state, according to the monthly statistics published by the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development.
According to the Tennessee County Services Association, the proposal shifts state and local per-pupil school funding away from the public school system in those four districts, making the funds available to parents to pay costs related to education outside the public school system. Bill sponsors and the Department of Education have indicated the bill currently only applies to the state’s Achievement School District and Davidson, Hamilton, Knox and Shelby county school systems because those systems each have at least three low-performing schools.
The bill is moving in different directions in the House and Senate. A House amendment removed homeschooling as a permitted use of ESA funds and capped enrollment at 15,000. The Senate amendment put home schools back in the bill and raised the cap to 30,000 students. Both proposals carry $25 million for three years for school improvement grants to systems where ESAs are made available. A simple calculation based on 5,000 students receiving 7,300 dollars each in the first year of the program shows that the drain on public school funding is over $36 million at the initial threshold with significantly more impact in later years after the “hold harmless” grants go away.
According to the TCSA, “proponents are portraying the bill as a way to provide assistance to low-income families with children enrolled in persistently failing schools, but testimony this week highlighted the fact that the proposal is in no way targeted to achieve that goal. The amount of funding provided through the ESA is significantly less than the cost of most private schools in the affected counties and, unlike previous voucher proposals, private schools are not required to waive the remaining cost of tuition and fees above the amount of the ESA. Furthermore, the income threshold in the bill remains at 200 percent of the federal guidelines for free lunch, which equals $66,950 for a family of four. That figure is higher than the median household income of almost every county in Tennessee. Additionally, there is no requirement that the student actually attends a low performing school. They simply have to be zoned to attend a school in a district that has three or more low performing schools and must have been enrolled in a public school the prior year. Technically, a family could have a student enrolled in Williamson County schools one year, move into Davidson County and immediately apply for an ESA and use that money to pay part of the cost of tuition at a private school in Nashville.”