Gov. Bill Lee’s proposal to create a Tennessee education savings account program will surely be one of the most controversial proposals of his first year.
Teachers, school boards and superintendents have strongly resisted similar programs. And school vouchers have divided the Tennessee General Assembly, with a Republican-dominated House only coming close to passing a bill once.
But what are school vouchers, how are they different from education savings accounts, and why are they so controversial?
What are education savings accounts?
School vouchers and savings accounts use public money for families to send their students to private school.
Critics blast stripping away funding from public schools while proponents say school vouchers help increase access for families with few options.
While education savings accounts go by a different name, they essentially do the same thing.
Education savings accounts use public funds to create a spending account where parents can use that money for private school or homeschooling. The funds can also be used for other services, such as tutoring or private lessons.
What do proponents and opponents say about vouchers?
For advocates, school voucher programs are all about expanding choice.
Many school voucher programs target students in the state’s lowest-performing schools. Lee’s plan is no different.
Lee, in his State of the State address, said he hopes to provide 5,000 students in low-performing districts access to state funds for the education savings account program. Each student would get about $7,300.
Lee would grow the program’s capacity by 2,500 students per year if there is continued demand, he said.
“Creating competition will provide a new incentive for schools to improve and provide new opportunities for thousands of students,” Lee said during the address.
But opponents have listed issues in other states, as well as concerns that the program would defund cash-strapped public schools.
In Arizona last fall, a state audit found that the state’s education department repeatedly failed to flag parents’ accounts that were showing a high risk of fraud.
It found that more than $700,000 allocated for its school voucher program was fraudulently spent at beauty supply stores and sports apparel retailers and on attempted cash withdrawals, among other expenses.
And with only a finite amount of money for Tennessee education, opponents say that money should go to already underfunded public schools. Several of the state’s districts are suing the state for more funding.
Tennessee Education Association president Beth Brown, leader of the state’s largest teacher’s union, called for Lee instead to help teachers who have had “to dig deep into their pockets for needed classroom supplies.”
Do they work?
The jury is still out on school voucher programs, but studies in Indiana, Louisiana and Ohio don’t show positive results.
Results vary, but the studies in each state show that academic performance dips among students who opt into private schools in the short term.
In Louisiana, for instance, student performance in math and reading dipped. Only after three years did student scores match the performance of their public school peers — but in reading only.
Studies showing the benefits of school vouchers are mixed.
A Milwaukee, Wisconsin, study suggests that attending a private school may have a benefit in students’ college attendance. In Washington D.C., however, a study shows students were more likely to graduate high school but not more likely to attend college.
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Reach Jason Gonzales at email@example.com and on Twitter @ByJasonGonzales.