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Vouchers, charter schools take center stage

Vouchers and charter schools – two words rarely spoken in Williamson County – were the focus of conversation at the conclusion of the County Commission Education Committee meeting Feb. 25.

Education leaders and county commissioners are grappling with these sticky issues being raised by legislation under consideration at the state capitol, as well as by the prospect of the county’s first charter school – an agricultural-based high school – which could open its doors as soon as fall 2014.

“Voucher seems to be such a toxic word,” said Lee Barfield, a board member for the Tennessee Federation for Children, a non-profit citizens group affiliated with the American Federation for Children. “We refer to what it really is, which is opportunity scholarships.”

Charter schools are publicly funded institutions that generally operate with greater financial autonomy and less bureaucratic governance than their traditional counterparts. Their purpose is to provide students in low-performing schools the opportunity to receive a quality education.

Voucher programs allow students to use public school funds to pay for private school tuition.

Supporters say vouchers and charter schools could improve education in Williamson County – already tops in the state – aid in population growth and save money.

“Opportunity scholarships are a public and private partnership that work,” said Trey Moore from the Beacon Center of Tennessee, a non-profit corporation engaged in policy research. “They could ease pressure from rapid growth in Williamson County and save taxpayers money.”

Several county officials, including commissioners and school board members, attended the meeting.

“There’s information floating around that needs to be disseminated,” said County Mayor Rogers Anderson. “This process is to educate ourselves on issues tonight,” rather than debate the issue.

Barfield said the effectiveness of voucher programs is well documented. Around 250,000 children around the nation use vouchers, he said. The voucher program in Florida, he said, has helped the state increase its national ranking from 29 in education to sixth while saving money along the way.

“Tennessee has ranked in the low 40s nationally for the last 40 years in academic performance. We have to do something,” said Barfield. “Choice education is a coming idea, and we think it’s ready for Tennessee.”

However, what might benefit some counties in Tennessee might not be effective in Williamson County, according to commissioner Eric Welch, representing District 10.

“I am open-minded to the concept of both charter schools and voucher programs,” Welch said. “I believe that there is a role in education for both, but I am not convinced that that role is in Williamson County.”
Mark Gregory, District 11, concurred.

“It’s important to remember that legislation coming from the hill is not necessarily customized for Williamson County Schools,” he said. “Some districts need certain legislation desperately in order to improve the quality of education.”

Moore said Williamson County could realize a savings of $2,300 per pupil for those who opt to use vouchers to attend any private school in the state. The amount represents the difference between $8,100, the district’s current rate spent per pupil (based on the state’s BEP) and $5,800, the current estimate of money spent per pupil to fund private school vouchers.

Looney, who has consistently argued against charter schools in Williamson County, said that a decrease in student population could cause per-student costs for the district to go up.

Posted on: 3/1/2013


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