Friday, February 23, 2024

TN: More Unregulated, Unaccountable Vouchers On Tap

Tennessee SB 2787 (also, HB 2468) is one of those odd little legislative tricks beloved by both parties and mysterious to ordinary mortals. It started out as a bill requiring the department of education to study school choice in other states and then make a report. Except by the time it's done it won't be about that at all.

The bill will be amended into some form of state-wide voucher bill. Right now folks are trying hard to figure out what form that bill might take exactly, as the vote is days away and "a deluge of proposed amendments to the proposal are rolling in."

So what will happen? One lawmaker promises an omnibus bill covering all manner of schools that "will improve education in ways that we haven't seen in decades." Sure. 

There are points of contention. Governor Lee's preferred version includes no requirement for any sort of testing in the private schools. Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson explains:

This is a parental rights bill. This is giving choice to parents to pick an educational alternative that is best for their child. It may be that their child has unique learning needs – so I'm very cautious about imposing everything that we impose on our public education system on these other alternatives.

This is one of the golden oldies of choice arguments. Parents must have choice, and those choices must come without rules and regulations because the public system is so choked with rules and regulations, argue the legislators who choked the public system with rules and regulations in the first place. 

So why use testing etc for public schools at all? Because those are taxpayer dollars being spent and the taxpayers deserve some accountability. Why don't the taxpayers deserve accountability when their dollars are spent on vouchers?

“Ultimately, parents will make the decision about final accountability, in my view,” Johnson added.

This is the time-honored "people will vote with their feet and that will keep these schools accountable" argument, which is baloney.  First, parents can't walk with their feet until money and time have already been wasted.

Second, market forces do not, and will never work on charter or choice schools. Shelby County schools enroll something just over 100,000 students. A charter/voucher school may need a few hundred to stay viable. 

Let's say I'm operating a charter/choice school with 200 seats. I only need to capture a tiny sliver of the 100,000 market to stay solvent. If a parent says, "You know, I'm not happy with this school, so I am going to vote with my feet," which of the following strikes us as a more likely response?

A) Charter CEO calls emergency meeting of board and administration. "All hands on deck!" He announces. "Parent #192 is unhappy and withdrawing their child. I need a task force to immediately find out why that parent was unhappy and the form another task force to redesign out instructional programs so that we can keep Parent #192 happy!"

B) Charter CEO says, "Whoop-dee-shit. Somebody go round up one of the other 99,800 students in the county to fill that seat."

One might think that the market would at least weed out the very worst schools, but in Pennsylvania we are loaded with ineffective cyber-charters, and they have adjusted by putting huge focus on marketing and recruitment; never mind how many people are leaving the school, but how many are signing up?

It would be nice, in a choice marketplace, to have some basic guardrails in place. We mostly don't depend on market forces to protect us from markets that sell poisonous food. One would think that the government could provide that basic level of oversight for a school choice system, but voucher fans are far more likely to explicitly forbid government oversight, and true to form, none of the discussion surrounding this bill seems to center on what requirements vendors would have to meet in order to get some of those taxpayer-funded voucher dollars. 

Choice fans talk about the needs of students and families, but Tennessee with its rich history of grift-centered education reformsterism seems poised to once again put the interests of profiteers ahead of protecting the rights of families. Heaven only knows what this bill is going to look like when it finally assumes its final form, but I'm not optimistic. We'll see. 

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