One of the more significant pieces of news reported on Tuesday was that Governor Bill Haslam had met in Nashville with the superintendents of Tennessee's four largest urban school systems, including Shelby County
Schools (SCS), in an effort to avert litigation against the state on behalf of those systems.
Apparently, the governor made some efforts to meet the superintendents halfway on their joint concern that the state's funding of their districts is woefully inferior to what is required. SCS head Dorsey Hopson was typical of the other superintendents in his optimistic assessment afterward that the governor is "committed to improving education outcomes in Tennessee." For his part, Haslam acknowledged the urban districts' special needs in saying, "Our challenge in a budget is always how do you make everything work."
As we were reflecting on that challenge, we were struck by a statement submitted to us this week by Shelby County Commissioner David Reaves, a Republican like Haslam and a former member of the SCS board. Reaves' words, which address the prospect of ongoing school-voucher legislation in the General Assembly, are relevant to the governor's dilemma and bear repeating:
"The state of Tennessee has proven that it is not willing to adequately fund education. And the proof is in the pudding as the state ranks 47th in education funding and places a significant tax burden on county governments to make up the rest. This is the main driving force behind the high tax rate in Shelby County. Sixty percent of our county property tax rate is made up of county education funding and the associated debt.
"Case in point is Governor Haslam, as he promises to raise the funding for pay increase for teachers while systematically cutting the Basic Education Program allocations in other areas. ... [T]he State of Tennessee requires certain standards and ratios for things like classroom size that cannot be changed. If fewer tax dollars are available, the difference will fall to local tax authorities or either a cut in quality education programs.
"Vouchers will take already underfunded schools resources at the state level and place more burden on local governments to make up the difference, while at the same time raising the classroom sizes and cutting course offerings.
"To do this across the backdrop of the low literacy rate in the State of Tennessee is a disaster for traditional public education for Shelby County and a disaster for our tax rate. If the state would fund education appropriately, I would support a voucher program for school choice. But I contend that, if we funded education appropriately, we probably would not need a voucher system.
"The reality is that we want quality education for all but do not want to pay for it. A voucher would give a quality education to a few and leave the rest behind. And I cannot support it."
The point made by Reaves is well taken. We have previously made a similar point about private-school vouchers, which could ultimately drain some $70 million annually from Tennessee's public schools under the formula embedded in the voucher plan now up for consideration in the legislature.
Resisting the lure of vouchers will not fully resolve the challenge of which the governor spoke. But it's a start.