November 17, 2023 10:00am

School Choices

Our survey of community leaders shows skepticism about school vouchers and rejecting federal education funding.

Knoxville, TN Correspondent
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Respondents to this month’s Power Poll Knoxville are deeply skeptical of some dramatic changes to public education proposed by some state leaders — and concerned that those leaders will pursue the changes anyway.

The Power Poll — a nonscientific survey sent to 900 leaders in the public, private and nonprofit sectors — showed that only 30 percent supported Gov. Bill Lee’s push to broaden the scope of what has been a small-scale pilot program for school vouchers. But 58 percent expect the Republican-dominated state Legislature to pass an expansion of the program.

Misgivings were even more pronounced about a proposal floated by House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, to reject more than $1 billion a year in federal education funding. Of those who responded to the poll, 80 percent said they opposed turning down the federal money, with only 8 percent in support. (The other 12 percent were unsure.)

Lee first introduced Education Savings Accounts into state law in 2019, as a limited voucher program initially available only to lower-income families in Shelby and Davidson counties. Even in that restricted form, the then-new governor and then-Speaker of the House Glen Casada ran into significant opposition from fellow Republicans. It took considerable arm-twisting before state Rep. Jason Zachary, R-Farragut, changed his vote from “no” to “yes” to allow the bill to pass — and Zachary made clear that his vote was contingent on the program not affecting Knox County schools.

But the COVID-19 pandemic turned public education into more of a partisan battleground than it had been before, with conservative groups like Moms 4 Liberty raising concerns about materials in curriculums and libraries. That has seemingly opened up political space on the right for more aggressive moves to broaden “school choice” — the idea that parents should be able choose any school they want for their children, at public expense.

Earlier this year, a proposal to broaden the ESA voucher program to Knox County was supported by every Republican state representative in the local delegation, including Zachary. However, opposition from the Senate — where local Sens. Richard Briggs and Becky Duncan Massey have been voucher skeptics — limited the expansion to Hamilton County.

Lee’s current commissioner of education, Lizzette Reynolds, arrived last year with a clear mandate to focus on expanding both charter schools and the voucher program. Reynolds’ background consists of serving as a political appointee in state and federal Republican administrations. She was most recently vice president of policy at ExcelinEd, a conservative pro-voucher organization.

Under the ESA program, low-to-middle-income families in affected districts can withdraw their children from public schools and receive a voucher — estimated this year at about $8,100 — equivalent to per-pupil spending in local schools. The money can be used either to pay tuition at private schools, including state-approved religious schools, or to pay for a range of homeschooling expenses.

The ESAs were launched as a pilot program and have actually been operating for only a year because their rollout was delayed by court challenges. But leaders in the Legislature aren’t waiting for data or results to consider expanding vouchers statewide.

Earlier this month, state Rep. Mark White, R-Memphis, the chair of the House Education Committee, announced that a statewide voucher expansion will be a priority of the coming legislative session. A majority of Power Poll respondents believes that what Lee and White want, the Legislature will deliver. Although 58 percent said they oppose expanding the ESA program, an identical percentage believes the Legislature will approve it.

The discussion about rejecting federal education funding is a bit murkier. For one thing, Lee has kept his distance from it, not weighing in on either side. For another, the goals of such a move remain murky. Sexton has said that turning down the federal funds would remove some regulatory “strings” on state education.

Sexton and Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, appointed a working group made up of state representatives and senators to study the issue. In hearings over the past two weeks, panel members heard from school superintendents who said federal funding was crucial; from state finance officials who explained that federal money typically makes up about 10 percent of total funding for Tennessee schools; and from Reynolds, who was not notably enthusiastic about the idea.

Most federal education funding provides targeted support for disadvantaged students, both those in low-income communities and those with disabilities. That includes the federal school nutrition program, which provides free and reduced-price lunches for low-income students. The working group is supposed to present a report by early January, potentially setting the stage for the Legislature to act on the issue this year.

But there are also cautionary budget forecasts circulating, which could dampen enthusiasm for relinquishing any major funding source. Power Poll respondents were strongly opposed to the idea, but somewhat unsure how the state will proceed. Thirty-nine percent of respondents said they thought the state would reject the federal funding, while 26 percent said it would not and 36 percent were unsure.

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About Power Poll: Power Poll asks questions of the most powerful, influential people in U.S. cities. It is not a scientific survey. But because the people responding to the surveys comprise the leadership structure of their cities, the results afford a fascinating glimpse into the thoughts, opinions, and beliefs of those in a position to make change. Power Poll is distinctly nonpartisan.

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