Fireworks about Speaker Casada’s support for Rep. David Byrd grabbed the headlines at a Williamson County town hall Friday morning when Lawrence County resident Ashley Massey confronted the rest of the Williamson delegation about the issue – prompting Rep. Sam Whitson to get up and leave the event.
Whitson took heat for his actions on social media. He later said he had told the audience he would be leaving early, but not stopping to apologize to an emotional Massey raised some eyebrows.
Whitson deserves more credit than Speaker Casada though, who was conveniently a no-show despite having been scheduled to be there, leaving his colleagues to handle his mess in front of CNN cameras.
As Massey spoke, Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson sat silently. The incident took the focus away from the policy discussions that had taken place earlier in the morning, where Johnson had more to say, particularly on the issue of school vouchers.
The idea behind vouchers, which are supported by Governor Lee, is that students in struggling Tennessee schools should be able to take the taxpayer dollars and use them towards tuition at other schools, including private schools.
It’s an issue that has become a source of contention throughout the country, particularly as Secretary of Education Betsy Devos has championed it despite “dismal” results in areas that have tried them.
Critics are concerned taking public dollars away from public schools do nothing to solve the issue of having troubled schools, and instead simply make matters worse for the kids who are left behind.
Some feel the agenda is being pushed on behalf of private religious school lobbyists, particularly Christian schools, which have their eyes on public dollars yet are not required to observe the same rules as public schools, meaning public dollars would be subsidizing schools that discriminate against certain communities with impunity, and who aren’t required to follow the same codes of conduct.
Asked whether Christian schools should continue to rely on giving—rather than pushing for taxpayer money through vouchers—Betsy DeVos famously replied:
“There are not enough philanthropic dollars in America to fund what is currently the need in education…Our desire is to confront the culture in ways that will continue to advance God’s kingdom.”
Public schools in rural communities would be acutely impacted, as private schools in those areas could theoretically be created to vulture those much-needed dollars away.
It’s worth noting that the idea of vouchers began when schools were desegregated and some white parents in the South didn’t want their children to go to school with black children.
At the town hall, Rep. Whitson said vouchers were going to be a difficult fight in the TN House, where there were strong feelings on both sides of the issue. Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson (R-Franklin) on the other hand said he supported vouchers “1000%” – although in the next breath he made it clear they would in no way affect Williamson County, which is where he lives, and which is where the town hall was being held:
He reiterated the point during the Q & A session when Franklin Alderman Bev Burger spoke up in support of vouchers, which she mistakenly appeared to believe would mean more money for the city.
They would not.
Johnson again hammered home the point that his pro-voucher stance is for all parts of Tennessee aside from Williamson County, which begs the question: If vouchers are a good thing for every other part of the state, why is Johnson being so careful to make sure the voters who vote for HIM know THEIR schools won’t be impacted?
Tennessee ranks near the bottom in per-student spending. If Johnson is concerned with Tennessee having “failing” schools, how about maybe addressing that problem itself by spending more money to fix that issue, rather than steering money away from those schools towards private schools owned by those who have money for lobbyists?
Imagine for a second a town. There’s one road in, one road out. The road has been decimated by a flood. There’s no way to drive on it. People can’t get out.
Now imagine if instead of fixing that road, the state offered to pay for helicopters for just a handful of kids whose parents can afford to pay for a portion of the helicopters themselves. What are the kids who can’t afford it supposed to do? How are they supposed to get out?
Vouchers don’t fix the issue of failing schools. Vouchers pick winners and losers, making the problem worse for a majority of students. If the governor wants to add money to help kids in failing schools and start a scholarship program, great.
But steering public dollars away from already struggling public schools is not a solution.
There’s a reason county commissions and school boards throughout the state are passing resolutions against them. Holler at yours if you think they should also, and holler at Jack Johnson to let him know you see his hypocrisy.
If vouchers are bad for Williamson County, they’re bad for the rest of Tennessee.
The people pushing private school vouchers shouldn’t be taken seriously if they don’t want them in their own communities.
If vouchers are good education policy that don’t risk weakening education in a community, why wouldn’t they want that tool for their communities?
— Jeff Yarbro (@yarbro) February 25, 2019