Governor Bill Haslam's embrace of a limited school voucher program is not sitting well with DeKalb County Director of Schools Mark Willoughby.
In an open meeting with State Representatives Mark Pody and Terri Lynn Weaver Friday, Willoughby said he doesn't like the idea of the state taking money from the DeKalb County public school system and giving it in the form of vouchers so parents can send children to other schools. "I'm against vouchers that the governor is wanting," said Willoughby. "From what I've read, vouchers would be $9200 per child. In our county, we get a little over $8,000 per child (state and local funds). I don't see why a child getting a voucher should get more that we get per child," said Willoughby.
(PLAY VIDEO BELOW OF TERRI LYNN WEAVER AND MARK PODY ON SCHOOL VOUCHERS)
A voucher program, which supporters call the "opportunity scholarship program" would divert state and local funding to private schools.
"As near as I can tell, they've (those in support) got the votes to do some sort of vouchers," said Representative Pody. " There's a group that says give us 100% and there's a group that says don't give any (vouchers) because it will gut the public schools. Is there a number in the middle? Is there a compromise? What would happen if there was a voucher available for $3,000 or $3500 or $4,000," asked Pody.
"Lets just say for DeKalb County it's $8,000 (that we get in state and local funding per child) and I think its more than that," said Willoughby. " If you have ten students that go to a charter school, that's $80,000. That's not quite two cents but its close to two cents of the property tax for DeKalb County that we would be losing and $100,000 for DeKalb County to lose in our education budget is a lot of money," said Willoughby. "Lets say if you're in DeKalb County and you're driving to Lebanon to work and you want your children to go to Friendship Christian. You could get a voucher for $9,200 and you can just drop them (children) off there or there could be a private school set up that won't have anything to do with churches or God and they'll take that (voucher) money away from our school system," said Willoughby.
Once the voucher program is in place, Willoughby fears it will expand creating an even heavier financial burden on the public school system. "I think the voucher system would get just like the charter school system where it would be expanded. The state started charter schools and I look at vouchers as a crack in the wall. If there's a crack in the wall I can put my knife in there and get a little bit more out of it. Later on I can put a crowbar in there and pry it open a little more," said Willoughby. Charter schools are for profit but the average charter school is not any better than your regular (public) school. I think data proves that," he said
County Mayor Mike Foster, who was also at the open meeting, agreed with Willoughby. "I agree with Mark. I don't think it's a good idea to fragment the public schools. The people you're going to be taking out of the schools, traditionally are going to be from upper class people. If you remove them from the classroom and put them in private school, you remove their mama's and daddy's support for that school and their involvement in that school. I think that's the wrong message. I think that it is so harmful to the public schools. I think if we have a problem with public schools we need to be addressing them and fixing that problem if there is a problem rather than sending kids to a private school who are probably going to go anyway. When you start doing vouchers, you're probably going to take the wealthiest four or five percent of the people out of the county and their kids out of the school and their parents out of the involvement of the school," said Foster.
Representative Pody said he has not yet made up his mind about vouchers. "There are a lot of people who want the vouchers and they want 100% of that money to go wherever their student goes and they want to be able to take it out of their public schools," said Pody. "There's a lot of people who say that would gut the public schools and their funding. I am not going to take a side here. I've got to find out more information about it. I don't agree that 100% of that money should be taken out of the public schools. I think the public schools have to educate everybody and if we withdraw all that money I think that will have a detrimental affect on those who couldn't leave that system for whatever reason. We need to fix our public schools if they need fixing. Taking the money out isn't going to do it. However, if there is somebody who wants to take their child out and move him to another school and that education dollar that is part of that could follow the child, I would see some reason in doing that. Having it go to a public school and moving to a private school, I think we would have serious concerns about that. If an individual wants to have their child go to a private school and they are willing to pay for that, its fine. I'm all supportive of that. But using public money to support private schools, I would be hesitant about doing something like that," said Representative Pody.
Representative Weaver said she too has some concerns. "I've got quite a few concerns about it (voucher program). I have not made a decision on it. That's the wonderful thing about committees, debates, and discussions. There still has to be a lot to help me make that decision," said Representative Weaver.
Willoughby is also troubled that the state may create a statewide charter authorizer to take authority to establish charter schools away from local school boards. "When the state started (charter schools) there were good regulations on that and there are some good charter schools but then we saw last year where that the Governor and the Commissioner of Education saw "Great Hearts" and they wanted "Great Hearts" (an Arizona-based charter operation) in Nashville Metro schools. But "Great Hearts" did not meet the requirements for charter schools as were set up so after it was voted down (by Metro schools) the commissioner took $3.2 million dollars away from Metro schools, which I think is illegal. I don't think the commissioner has a right to do that. Its like they now want state control over who grants charter schools so that if a local board doesn't grant a charter school and it can be appealed to the state its going to make them (state) rubber stamp it. Its sort of like saying we (state officials) want local control on some things. When we (state officials) run for office we say we want local control but yet when we don't get our way we're going to say that we (state officials) want control. I think that's what's happened with charter schools," said Willoughby.
Representative Pody said he is in agreement with Willoughby and plans to submit a bill to reign in the authority of the commissioner of education who has the power to override statutory law." It cuts the commissioner's authority. Right now he can override statutory law. But we are submitting a bill specifically to stop him from doing something like this, specifically on charter schools. We are in agreement that this has to be reigned in," said Pody.
Governor Haslam said recently that he plans to push a limited education voucher bill in the Legislature this year. The poorest children in Tennessee's worst-performing schools would be eligible, the governor said. He expects to release details in about two weeks.