Chattanooga Power Poll Shows Sharp Divisions on Gov. Lee's Education Proposals
Meanwhile, bills on charter schools and vouchers advance in Legislature
A Power Poll survey of Chattanooga and Hamilton County leaders shows sharp divisions on Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee’s proposals for a school voucher plan and for granting the state greater authority in approving charter school applications.
Power Poll members, who are composed of influential residents here, narrowly oppose both in the most recent Times Free Press survey. But the slim margin of opposition in the Power Poll numbers only highlights the controversy over the issues as they face debate in the Tennessee General Assembly.
When asked, “What do you think of Lee’s plan to introduce school vouchers in Knoxville, Chattanooga, Nashville, Memphis, and Jackson?,” 49 percent of Power Poll members here said they are opposed. Forty-five percent said they are in favor. And 6 percent said they “don’t know.”
When asked, “What do you think of Lee’s plan to allow charter school operators to bypass their local school boards for approval and seek approval from the state instead?,” 51 percent said they are opposed, 43 percent said they are in support, and 6 percent said they “don’t know.”
The Power Poll is not a scientific survey. But it is designed to offer insights into what community leaders think about current issues and events. Power Poll members are capable of steering a city’s, or state’s, discussion one way or another. Members come from a variety of fields, including politics and government, the private sector, nonprofits, the religious community, and more. This month’s poll was underwritten by BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee.
Power Poll members in Nashville, Memphis, and Knoxville answered the same survey questions. The total statewide Power Poll response in the state’s four largest cities showed opposition to the voucher plan at 57 percent, support at 35 percent, and “don’t know” at 8 percent. As to the charter schools proposal, 58 percent were opposed, 36 percent were in favor, and 6 percent were undecided.
Lee’s proposals to broaden school choice by introducing vouchers and easing the charter school approval process have emerged as his most visible and hard fought policy issue in his new administration.
The voucher plan would create education savings accounts (ESAs) in Tennessee, which would provide public money to parents allowing them to choose educational options other than traditional public schools. Those options would include private schools and various online education programs. Earlier this week, the ESA measure passed its first test when it was approved by a House Education subcommittee.
Lee’s plan calls for allocating $75 million for ESAs over the next three years, with the plan initially targeting some 5,000 students in the 2021-22 school year. The program would expand by 2,500 students a year.
Ultimately about 15,000 students in Jackson, Nashville, Memphis, Knoxville, and Chattanooga would be eligible to participate. Eligibility would be limited to students who attend schools in districts marred by poor performance.
The charter school bill has cleared the full House and Senate Education committees but was significantly amended. Lee's intention on the charter bill was to bypass the process by which charter school operators apply to their local school boards for approval and seek approval from the state instead. However, as amended, the bill still requires local board consideration of charters.
Proponents of both measures include a number of pro-reform education activists who argue that vouchers and additional charters make greater choice available to students, particularly those students zoned for low-performing schools. They argue that many who stand to benefit are from low-income families who often don’t have the resources to attend private institutions with better educational track records.
Opponents at the House legislative subcommittee this week peppered proponents with questions about how those using the voucher plan would find transportation to attend private schools. They voiced concerns about testing that would be conducted to track outcomes. And they also asked sponsors how the funds in the ESAs would be distributed to the parents of the students and what steps would be taken to prevent fraud.
In past legislative sessions, voucher proposals have faced strong resistance. But this is the first instance in which a governor has thrown his political clout behind such a plan, giving it a greater likelihood of success.
What the Survey Says Statewide
Here is a breakdown of how Power Poll members across the state responded to the questions:
QUESTION: “What do you think of Lee’s plan to introduce school vouchers in Knoxville, Chattanooga, Nashville, Memphis, and Jackson?
Chattanooga: 49 percent oppose; 45 percent support; 6 percent don’t know
Nashville: 58 percent oppose; 34 percent support; 8 percent don't know
Knoxville: 62 percent oppose; 29 percent support; 8 percent don’t know
Memphis: 54 percent oppose; 38 percent support; 8 percent don’t know
QUESTION: “What do you think of Lee’s plan to allow charter school operators to bypass their local school boards for approval and seek approval from the state instead?
Chattanooga: 51 percent oppose; 43 percent support; 6 percent don’t know
Nashville: 59 percent oppose; 36 percent support; 5 percent don’t know
Knoxville: 62 percent oppose; 31 percent support; 7 percent don’t know
Memphis: 54 percent oppose; 31 percent support; 15 percent don’t know