Voucher Vortex: Tenn. officials sucked into controversy over private school aid

Some Tennessee legislators are big on vouchers, and they prodded Gov. Bill Haslam to establish a nine-member task force to study tax subsidies for religious and other private schools. Unfortunately, its members have promptly blundered into a minefield.

Details can be messy things. The task force wrangled over questions such as accountability, how to ensure that students in voucher schools are getting a good education and how much vouchers should be worth.

Members of the task force couldn’t even agree on who should get vouchers. The Chattanooga Times Free Press reported that some members of the task force want to limit vouchers to low-income students or youngsters in school deemed “failing.” But Mary McDonald, former superintendent for the Memphis Catholic school system, insisted that everyone should get vouchers.

“I think academic outcome is absolutely the bottom line, but in that, what are the choices for my child, what are the choices for education?” McDonald asked. “There are no choices right now if you are in a certain area of the city or certain ZIP code.”

It’s not surprising McDonald would take that line. Across the country, Catholic schools are being shuttered as more and more parents realize that the public schools are doing a good job and that the money they’re spending on Catholic school tuition might be better socked away in a college fund.

Church officials are essentially seeking a taxpayer-funded bailout for their flagging school system – a system that even many church members have decided they don’t want to patronize. One wonders if McDonald has ever heard of the law of supply and demand?

The issue of accountability is also interesting. My guess is that, given the religious make-up of Tennessee, many of the schools taking part in a voucher plan will be aligned with fundamentalist Christianity. What type of science will these schools teach? What type of history? How will the students who attend them perform on standardized tests? Will they be able to get into colleges?

But the elephant in the room is Islamic schools. Will the state fund those as well with its vouchers?

Beth Harwell, speaker of the Tennessee House of Representatives, was asked about this recently by the Marshall Tribune. One gets the impression that Harwell was a bit uncomfortable answering the question.

“I think it would be a constitutional issue,” Harwell said. She added, “It is one that we would have to weigh very carefully as a legislature.”

Still fumbling, Harwell then said, “I think that, in itself, causes real alarm in the halls of the legislature. Having said that, I think we will seriously look at vouchers…. All those concerns are valid ones, legitimate ones. There is no easy answer.”

Alarm bells? Do you think? This is the state, after all, where residents actually went to court to try to stop a mosque from opening in Murfreesboro.

And don’t think this is a theoretical matter. Two Islamic schools in Washington, D.C., have received taxpayer funding under House Speaker John Boehner’s federally funded voucher program for the District of Columbia. Courts have been clear on this matter: Benefits that are extended to one religion must be made available to all.

Harwell says they is no “easy answer” to problems like this. Sure there is: Don’t pass a voucher plan. Focus funding on public schools. If some of the public schools are experiencing problems, give them the support and resources they need to improve.

The problems Tennessee officials are experiencing, even before voucher legislation is formally introduced, underscore why this project should be abandoned. Voucher schemes force the government to wade into religious matters, where the state has no business being. And vouchers force taxpayers to support religious indoctrination that they may not believe in.

And, oh, there’s one other reason why vouchers are especially problematic in Tennessee: Article XI, Section 12 of the state constitution. It reads in part, “The State of Tennessee recognizes the inherent value of education and encourages it support. The General Assembly shall provide for the maintenance, support and eligibility standards of a system of free public schools.”

Siphoning money away from the public schools and into the coffers of private institutions looks to be in clear conflict with that laudable goal.

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