By Richard Rourk

A controversial bill recently passed in both the Tennessee House of Representatives and the Tennessee State Senate that would allow for student vouchers to be used in Davidson and Shelby Counties.

A school voucher, also called an education voucher in a voucher system, is a certificate of government funding for a student to attend school chosen by the student or the student’s parents. Current Tennessee House Bill 939 (HB939) and Tennessee Senate Bill 795 (SB795) propose that education funds be allocated to a voucher system.

There have been more than 50 school systems, including Unicoi County, and organizations oppose these bills. During the April Unicoi County School Board Meeting, the board voted unanimously to oppose HB939/SB795.

“I’ll tell you tonight that this bill has legs if we don’t speak out against it, and it is nothing more than an attack on public schools,” Board of Education member Steve Willis said during the April meeting.

Unicoi County Director of Schools John English recently spoke with The Erwin Record about his disappointment in the bill.

“I absolutely and wholeheartedly oppose any and all bills that divert any public tax dollars away from public education. Period,” English said. “I would say reach out to legislators and let them know how you feel about this, but having said that, many reps have said openly they were overwhelmed with emails, calls, and texts opposing these bills but voted for it anyway. So, I am not sure that makes a difference, but we have to do all we can do and that’s our avenue.”

According to English, this bill takes away from an already underfunded public school system. “Public education in Tennessee, which is presently underfunded by approximately $500 million will be even more so with this bill,” English said. “Tennessee ranks 45th in the US in public education funding, but this bill takes public dollars and invests it in private institutions, which  doesn’t have the same accountability as public education.”

English took offense to the lack of concern the representatives showed for educators.

“This is yet another example of a decision made by those not in the (teaching) profession, and most have never been, who ignored their constituents,” English said. “The gap they say they are trying to close will only be widened even further, and the lack of trust legislators have shown in administrators and public educators is very frustrating.”

English also took offense to the representatives that voted in favor of the bill, as long as it didn’t affect their districts.

“It says a lot that most who voted yes openly said they did so after assurances were made it wouldn’t impact their districts, and it says plenty about the bill,” English said. “If it’s a good thing why would people not want it in their areas? The answer is pretty clear to me.”

Board of Education Chairman Tyler Engle released the following statement to oppose the bills:

“I am writing to express my firmest opposition to the Education Savings Account plan passed by the Tennessee General Assembly’s House and Senate. As you know, the bills will now be reconciled in a conference committee. What I believe is most telling is that only a handful of the legislators representing Shelby and Davidson Counties – the only counties affected – voted in favor of this legislation.

“I have always stood for full funding of our public school system in Unicoi County and across Tennessee. The public schools do so much more than just teach reading, writing, and arithmetic today. Now, we support children in their social development, teach crucial coping skills which are often not found in the home, and create a loving, supportive atmosphere for every boy and girl, regardless of his or her starting place. It is my sincere hope that those lawmakers who voted in favor of this reckless bill will reconsider their stance.

“As students are disenrolled from the public schools, counties must make up for lost revenues. Unfortunately, this will lead to a cycle of worse performance in public schools and higher and higher taxes. Too, the household income limit of $66,000 means that the poorest Tennesseans – the very people this program was designed to assist – may become disadvantaged by it as more people become eligible.

“Further, the present bill does not require ESA (Education Savings Accounts) recipients to take the same number of tests per year as their public school peers, immediately putting public school children at a disadvantage.

Unicoi County will eventually feel the effects of this bill as public dollars (to the tune of $25 million each year) begin to flow out of the state’s general fund into the Education Savings Account system. Whether it’s through decreased grant opportunities or through increased taxes, we all know that you can’t spend more money without more income.

“The Unicoi County Board of Education took a hard-line stance on this issue at its April 16 regular session meeting. The school board passed a resolution opposing Education Savings Accounts and vouchers for private schools. The public-at-large can get involved by calling or e-mailing their elected representatives in Nashville and telling them to vote ‘no’ on any upcoming legislation related to Education Savings Accounts. If we truly wish to see Tennessee succeed, we need to fund the public school system we’ve worked so hard to build, not tear it down.

Unicoi County Commissioners passed a resolution in opposition of the bill as well during their April meeting.

“The Commission passed a resolution in opposition and I totally agree with that position,” Unicoi County Mayor Garland “Bubba” Evely, who previously served on the Unicoi County Board of Education, said. “As I understand the current bills they only pertain to the four largest systems, but that will only expand in future years. I believe that the problems in those systems should be fixed instead of taking funding from public schools.”

Unicoi County Commission Chairman Loren Thomas agreed with Evely.

“I don’t think this bill will immediately impact Unicoi County schools, but it does open the door to negatively affect funding for our school system in the future, and it was disappointing to see some of our local representatives and senators vote in favor of this bill, knowing that the school boards and county officials they represent were opposed to it,” Thomas said. “In the future, if this deal is expanded into all other Tennessee counties, it will pull a significant amount of funding away from public school systems, which will affect teacher’s pay, sports programs, and possibly increase taxes.”

Unicoi County Commissioner John Mosley also argues that the bill takes away from the funding of public school systems.

“I think it hurts public schools, and I am not for it,” Mosley said. “It takes away from the public school system, which is the heartbeat of the nation.”

One county commissioner that sees how the bill affects all aspects of public schools is Unicoi County Commissioner and high school educator Glenn White.

“Vouchers are still public money, and education is not a business. In this arena children are involved,” White said. “In my opinion, let the local school boards decide what educational initiatives should be implemented.”

White took offense to the political influence that affects public schools today.

“The influence of the lobbying machine for the testing industry has persuaded the general assembly that this is the only way of accountability, which is ridiculous,” White said. “All students in high school should not be required to take the ACT test, this test is primarily for those students who plan on a four-year college education, whereas, a young man who plans on being a welder, should not be tested in this area.

“There should be two exit tests, one the ACT, then the other a CTE (career technical educational) exam that exemplifies what the student has learned,” White continued. 

Unicoi County is represented in the Tennessee General Assembly by State Senator Rusty Crowe and State Representative John Holsclaw.