Just flush public education down the toilet, already

Frank CagleFrank Talk

A few things to consider about Gov. Bill Lee’s Education Savings Plan/voucher/debit card, sponsored in the House by Knoxville’s own state Rep. Bill Dunn.

You need to remember that the architects of Education Savings Plans are funded by the Koch brothers; they lobby nationwide and have as their goal privatizing education and eliminating public schools.

The plan issues a debit card with $7,300 on it and the parent can spend it on anything deemed “educational.” Field trip to Disney World? A flat-screen TV study aid? These programs have been found to be infested with fraud and abuse elsewhere. Who in Tennessee will police the program and find out if it is being abused? Is the Comptroller’s Office supposed to audit 15,000 students? And who decides if a questionable item is an “educational expense?” An audit of the program in Arizona revealed parents misspent $700,000 in one year.

In three years, the state will count up how many Knox County students are getting voucher/debit cards to go to private schools and will then cut the amount of money (BEP) the state sends to Knox schools. Unless Knox County closes a school or lays off teachers, a property tax increase is in your future.

The bill forbids these funds for homeschoolers. But if you enter your 6-year-old in a public school in the first grade, qualify for a debit card, then you can homeschool until the child is 18 years old, drawing at least $7,000 a year.

If the parent decides to spend the debit card for tuition to a Catholic school or to a Muslim madrasa, will that school be required to do state-mandated testing like public schools? If not, why not?

If a student qualifies for the voucher/debit card, it is an entitlement until age 18. A family can move to Knoxville, qualify, then move back to Tazewell and keep drawing the money from Knox County.

The bill forbids vouchers for illegal aliens. But it is against federal law for a school to ask a student’s immigration status; federal judges have ruled that schools are to educate every child. So this program will be getting up to speed handing out money by the time it gets to a federal judge. Supporters say the voucher program is over and above a basic education and is thus legal. My practical question is, how can you determine if a student applicant is illegal if federal law prevents your asking in the first place? Do you just deny a voucher to anyone named Gonzales?

This money is not for very poor people. The average Knox County income is $52,102. The ceiling for getting a voucher/debit card is $66,950 for a family of four or $78,442 for a family of five. Virtually every family in Knox County would be eligible.

The bill applies only to Knox County, Shelby County (Memphis), Davidson County (Nashville), Hamilton County (Chattanooga) and the Jackson-Madison school district in West Tennessee. So all you rural school systems can just rest easy? That’s what they thought in Arizona until they got the plan set up; then it was a simple matter to pass a bill to extend the program to every school district in the state. A popular uprising led to a referendum and the repeal of the plan. Nevada tried it, but the courts shut it down because the funding mechanism was flawed.

The plan uses one-time general fund money to set it up and to fool people that the ultimate cost won’t come out of the existing education budget. By 2025 Lee would have spent $125 million to have a program in place for 15,000 students. It is unlikely that the administration would spend this kind of money to set up this program if it did not plan to expand it exponentially. At that point BEP funds to local school systems will be cut to pay for the vouchers. The only thing one can conclude is that this plan will gradually disburse funds to parents to send students to private schools, education funding from the state will be cut to pay for it and the end result is not a happy outcome for public schools.

What really happened: House Speaker Glen Casada made state Rep. David Byrd chair of the education subcommittee that would be needed to vote out the voucher bill. Casada helped Byrd get re-elected and has defended him against allegations that he had inappropriate behavior when coaching girls’ basketball 20 years or so ago. Casada thought that as a result he had Byrd’s vote on the voucher bill in his pocket. But Byrd refused to vote for the bill. Casada then made an example of Byrd to other committee chairs who might vote their conscience instead of Casada’s will. He removed him from his position as chair. Also, Casada, as Speaker, attended the committee meeting where the voucher bill passed, which could be taken as intimidation of weak-kneed members. A Casada aide said that anybody who connected Byrd’s removal to the voucher vote is a liar. You be the judge.

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