BLOUNTVILLE, Tenn. — The Sullivan County Board of Education will vote tonight on a resolution to oppose legislation that would create an educational savings account program in the state.
Board member Matthew Spivey, of Kingsport, who is sponsoring the resolution, said during the board’s work session last week that he believes the program would take millions of dollars in state funding away from public schools. Others across the state have taken the same stance, including the Tennessee School Boards Association. The TSBA wrote the resolution Spivey is carrying.
Spivey said the proposed bill would allocate $125 million for the savings accounts over the next three years — money that he wishes the state would allocate for public education.
Gov. Bill Lee supports ESAs and provided details during his State of the State address in March on his plan to devote an additional $37.4 million in funding during the 2019-20 fiscal year to give students across the state more schooling options, according to the Associated Press. The program would give parents that qualify for the option to use ESA money to pay their children’s tuition at private elementary and secondary schools.
During Lee’s address, he said the accounts would create “competition and a new incentive for schools to improve and provide new opportunities for thousands of students.” He added that his program would allocate at least $25 million in new money to public schools during the first year of implementation to “fill the gap” when students transfer to other schools.
Teachers and public education groups are opposed to the legislation, in part, because they believe it’s a way around measures in place to keep public funding from going to religious-based schools.
Spivey said last week that he believes using the term “educational savings accounts” is a political move to avoid using voucher program, which concerns him because he doesn’t believe vouchers are good for public education.
“They’re getting closer and closer to a traditional voucher program,” he said, referring to the bill as it has progressed through Tennessee House committees. “I’ve heard some people say this wouldn’t affect Northeast Tennessee, but I think that that’s a dangerous way to view this because if you look at the statistics of what the bill is targeted at … you’re talking about nearly a third of all public school students in Tennessee.”
Spivey said the lack of accountability in similar existing programs in other states has led to “rampant fraud and profit motives,” and there is no data to show that the programs have improved quality of education. The resolution states that ESAs create a risk of fraud because tax dollars are channeled into private institutions that may not face state-approved academic standards or publicly report on student achievement and don’t make budgets public, adhere to open meetings and records laws, or face public accountability requirements under federal law.
Private school vouchers were first proposed more than 50 years ago and still remain “controversial, unproven, and unpopular” and are “an attempt to rebrand the voucher argument,” according to the resolution.
Board Chairman Michael Hughes, the only other member who spoke on the issue, said private school students aren’t required to take the same tests as public school students.
State law currently allows parents of students with certain disabilities to withdraw their children from public school and receive up to $6,000 for private educational services, according to the Associated Press.
In other business tonight, the board is expected to vote on hiring a company to livestream its meetings and changing its meeting time from the first Tuesday to the first Thursday of each month. If approved, the board’s work sessions would be held on the fourth Thursdays.
The board will meet at 6:30 p.m. in the board room of the Sullivan County Schools Central Office in Blountville.