Williamson lawmakers support Gov. Bill Lee’s Education Savings Accounts plan, though it won’t touch their county
FROM: The Tennessean –
Gov. Bill Lee’s proposed education savings account program, which will give state money to students in failing schools for education opportunities, is backed by powerful players in the legislature from Williamson County.
Their support for Lee’s initiative stands in stark contrast to the county’s school leaders, who vehemently oppose Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) and voucher programs.
Lee, who also calls Williamson County home, unveiled his plan for ESAs in his State of the State address, where he announced he wanted $25 million for the program.
Sen. Jack Johnson, R-Franklin, explained that Lee’s ESA program is different than previous proposed voucher programs; students in low-performing schools could have access to state money to use for private education, tutoring, school supplies and more. The money wouldn’t be limited to use in private schools.
Lee’s ESA plan would also invest at least $25 million in public schools to fill the gap when a student leaves for private education.
Williamson school leaders maintain that ESAs are vouchers disguised under a different name. Proposed voucher programs have failed in the past, but this year, particularly with the support of Johnson, who is the Senate majority leader, and House Speaker Glen Casada, the ESA proposal could have enough momentum to take effect. Like Johnson, Casada is also a Republican who represents Franklin.
Ahead of the State of the State address, Johnson told The Tennessean he would fully support whatever Lee proposed in the area of school choice. As Senate majority leader, he will be the prime sponsor on the bill once it is introduced.
“I absolutely support it. I’m even more supportive now,” Johnson said. “I want to be clear: it will not affect Williamson County.”
Williamson school leaders skeptical it won’t hit home
For now, Lee’s proposed plan won’t impact Williamson County.
The state’s most affluent county is home to two high-achieving school districts —Williamson County Schools and the Franklin Special School District — and none of its students would be eligible for vouchers to attend the area’s elite private schools.
WCS Superintendent Mike Looney and FSSD Director of Schools David Snowden are skeptical that a program wouldn’t eventually find its way to Williamson.
“We were told that this will not affect us in Williamson County. But it will affect us eventually because if we’re limiting it to a certain number of people, when the others want to have access to ESAs, they’ll take that to court and ask how it can be limited only to a certain area,” Snowden said. “They’ll say, ‘I want that funding, I want that for my children.’”
The Williamson County School Board has not passed a formal resolution denouncing vouchers; however, members have told lawmakers they do not support vouchers or ESAs. In January, before the board signed off on extending Looney’s contract through 2023, board member Nancy Garrett made it clear that she expected Looney to represent the board’s anti-voucher stance.
Looney, who has long taken a public stance against vouchers, emphasized the money leaving public education for ESAs will certainly trickle down to ultimately impact how many dollars his district receives.
WCS is already receiving one of the lowest shares of state Basic Education Program (BEP) funding due to its residents’ ability to pay for schools.
“There will be an indirect impact on Williamson schools,” Looney said. “There is not research out there that supports or indicates that vouchers are a successful strategy to improve public education. We’re gambling with children’s futures, in my opinion.”
Johnson snapped back at the possibility that a voucher plan one day impacting Williamson should keep lawmakers from supporting it now.
“So, we are going to leave kids trapped in failing schools and deny them the opportunity to pursue the American dream because of a camels nose under the tent?” he asked.
Lawmakers’ push for vouchers not new
This isn’t the first session Williamson legislators have tried to push forward a plan for vouchers across the state.
At the beginning of 2016, Johnson and Casada both supported the plan “Tennessee Choice & Opportunity Scholarship,” which would have eventually provided for vouchers for 20,000 students. At the time, an online petition started circulating asking legislators from Williamson to back away from voucher initiatives.
At a roundtable in 2016, Johnson said he couldn’t figure out why anyone wouldn’t want to support the initiative.
“How can we sit here in our ivory tower and kids in Memphis sit in a failing school?” Johnson asked three years ago. “It won’t impact you. Why anyone would be opposed to that is beyond me.”
Casada called the initiative a “victory for families.”
After that January 2016 public support of vouchers, the group Tennesseans for Putting Students First started donating money to the delegation for the last three years. The group — which advocates for charter schools and voucher programs — donated $9,500 to legislators in Williamson. Some of those donations were also made to Johnson’s and Casada’s personal political action committees.
Tennessee Holler, a new liberal site, recently shared a video of Johnson iterating that same sentiment at February’s roundtable.
Rep. Sam Whitson, R-Franklin, expressed concerns about a voucher program in Tennessee ahead of Lee’s State of the State address.
“My concerns mostly have to do with what kind of schools will be formed as a result of this,” he said. “There may be schools that (are) religious cults or off-the-wall programs that will start receiving state money and that concerns me as a tax payer and a parent.”
Whitson added, “We need to look hard to see if vouchers are really work in low performing districts.”