Big Four School Systems to Slug It Out with GOP over Vouchers

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The state’s Big Four school systems are gearing up to battle Republicans in the legislature next year to stop vouchers. The Coalition of Large School Systems—Nashville, Knoxville, Memphis and Chattanooga—already has hired Robert Gowan and the Southern Strategy Group to do the lobbying.

The Big Four was taken by surprise in the last session when Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, whipped his school voucher bill successfully through the Senate. He’s already vowed to come back with the bill next year, and Gov. Bill Haslam is talking about helping him, so a big fight is shaping up.

Knox County’s school board has just adopted a resolution against vouchers, and Metro Nashville's is supposed to follow suit next week.

In an interview with Pith today, Metro school board member Mark North, our representative in the big city coalition, denounced Kelsey’s bill as “basically the Private School Relief Act.”

“It takes public money and diverts it to private schools,” he said. “We just went through all these reforms. We’d take the money from the schools that we’ve just taken all those steps to ensure quality teaching and accountability and give it to schools that have none of that.”

North scoffed at Republicans claims that school choice is the goal.

“The reality is the entity that gets the choice is the private school admissions office. They choose who goes to the school. They can choose anyone or deny anyone. All this does is funnel funds to the private entity that’s choosing which students to let in.”

As it is, Kelsey’s bill will cover only low-income children and give each of them a voucher worth only half what the state is spending on their education in public schools—well less than the cost of just about any private school’s tuition. North said private schools would use Kelsey's vouchers to help cover tuition for football players, mainly.

“I don’t want to be totally cynical,” North said. “But this will pay for the kids who can play ball.”

He predicted Kelsey wants to push through this law only so he can return to the legislature with a bill covering all children. Then most of the voucher program’s money probably would go to the parents of children who already attend private schools, North said.

“The political marketing slogan is, ‘Well it’s their tax money. They can spend it any way they want.’ But they don’t expand that to anything other than education. If they did, how many people in Tennessee would choose to pay the legislature?”

So with the Big Four fighting vouchers, Republicans wouldn't pass Kelsey's bill anyway, would they? Hah! The GOP in this state has no qualms about imposing its will on the cities, as we all learned in the last session.

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