Thursday, February 11, 2016

School Vouchers: We Must Be Very Careful

During this legislative year in Tennessee, the legislature may very well pass its first school voucher bill.  It’s being guided though the TN House of Representatives by our friend, Representative Bill Dunn of Knoxville.  Representative Dunn is a good and honorable public servant, and I have no doubt but that he wants the best possible education for all the children of Tennessee.  

When a new educational program is being considered by the Tennessee Legislation or the State Department of Education, I always ask one crucial question: Will this new program help enhance the educational achievement of children from poor families?  Middle/upper class parents have the financial ability to live in the best school zones, or they supplement the education their children receive from the local school.  Children from poor families are doomed to attend the public school for which they are zoned regardless of the quality of education the children receive. 

I’ve been a teacher for 43 years and a teacher educator for 26 years, and we have been trying to “fix” urban and poor rural schools for all these years, and basically we have failed.  Teach for America and KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) Public Charter Schools have a positive track record with poor urban children, but their schools are usually small, because they pick from the most motivated parents and students.  We have not been able to replicate their success on a mass scale, and their programs are nonexistent in poor rural areas. 
This situation brings us back to the issue of finding better schools for those children who live in poverty and are trapped in ineffective schools.  But I have a concern with the voucher approach.  I have never examined a voucher program where the amount of the voucher would actually pay for full tuition to a private school.  This reality brings us to a very important question: Which students will the voucher really help? 

The reading of the Tennessee voucher bill indicates that most of the students eligible for the voucher will be students of color in failing, poor, urban schools, which brings up yet another significant question: Will private schools actually accept the urban poor students into their schools?  Many parents sacrifice financially to send their children to schools that not only educate them better, but also shield them from the culture and social ills of urban poverty. 

Finally, will all private religious schools be able to participate in this voucher program?  I believe in religious freedom and that this freedom is not limited to Christian religious groups.  However, there are specific religious groups in this state that, although I would march in the street for their right to worship their God as they choose, I do not want my tax money to be used for their private religious schools.  The ability of all religious groups to get these voucher funds for their private schools could turn into a civil nightmare which could ignite a serious reaction against religious liberty. 
I am not begrudging the success of Teach for America and KIPP; several of our Maryville College graduates have been employed by Teach for America and KIPP.  The criticisms of these programs center on the fact that they tend to hire young, recently licensed teachers, but in their programs the hours are long, and the work week often extends beyond five days.  This work load is not sustainable; consequently, teachers often burn out early and leave the teaching profession.  For this reason, I do not believe Teach for America and KIPP have the long-term answer. 

My final warning to those whose motive is pure, in that they want all our children to have access to effective teachers and schools, is this:   We need to be very careful before we go down this road. 

Bless you my children...

(photo credit: News Service)

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