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A New Kind of Segregation in Schools

Posted on Saturday, January 20, 2024 at 1:00 pm

A New Kind of Segregation in Schools
Tracy Harris – Staff Writer
What exactly has happened over the last few years for students in Tennessee? A lot, and the changes keep coming.
Lee’s Push for School Choice
In 2019, Governor Bill Lee signed Public Chapter 506, creating thet Tennessee Education Savings Account (ESA) Program. It allows eligible students to use state and local money for education expenses, including tuition and/or fees at approved nonpublic schools in Memphis-Shelby County, Metro Nashville, or in the Achievement School District (ASD).
In 2022, Lee’s administration and the General Assembly worked on the Tennessee Investment in Student Achievement (TISA) Act, changing K-12 public schools to a student-based funding approach. It was signed by the governor May 2, 2022.  The Tennessee Department of Education (TDOE) explains TISA as a public school funding formula that updated how “the state funds public education for the first time in over 30 years to empower each student to read proficiently by third grade…”
2023 was no different and Lee continued talking about school choice. He held a press conference and issued a press release on Nov. 28, 2023, calling for statewide school choice. Lee unveiled a highly anticipated proposal to establish statewide universal school choice. In the press release, Lee states, “I look forward to working with Tennessee families and members of the General Assembly to accomplish this historic legislative initiative.”
This proposed Education Freedom Scholarship Act of 2024 money could be used at any private school and most home schools. Students who are eligible to attend K-12 public schools, including homeschoolers enrolled in umbrella or church-related schools, will be eligible for the $7,075 scholarship. For the 2024-25 school year, 20,000 scholarships will be awarded on a first-come, first-served basis. 10,000 are designated for students who are at or below 300% of the federal poverty level, have a disability, or those eligible for the ESA program. The other 10,000 are for a universal pool of students. For the 2025-26 school year and thereafter, there is universal eligibility for all students.
According to the TDOE, most of the funds for public schools are appropriated through our legislature’s annual budget. For every dollar collected in sales tax in Tennessee, it is divided as follows: 56 cents to education, 28 cents to the general fund, and 16 cents to local governments. The education portion includes state sales tax and local sales tax collections combined. That means that more than half of our tax dollars currently go to education. Over $5 billion dollars was appropriated for the 2021-22 school year for public school districts.
Federal funding also comes into play. The federal funds are based on the amount of students on reduced or free lunch. In November 2023, the following percentages of students received reduced or free lunches in Marshall County schools: In Chapel Hill – CHES – 40%, DHIS – 43%, FHS – 36; in Cornersville – CES – 49%, CHS – 44%; and in Lewisburg – MES – 76%, OGES – 77%, WES – 74%, LMS – 75%, MCHS – 67%. These numbers are a good indicator of the poverty level.
Director & Principal Weigh In
Jacob Sorrells, Director of Schools, and Justin Perry, MCHS Principal, share similar beliefs on public education funding. They both believe that Marshall County’s 5,443 current students would be impacted by the statewide voucher program. According to Sorrells, “If we lose students, we lose money.”
Perry asked, “Do we really want taxpayers funding upper class and middle class people with tax dollars from Marshall County to send that kid that’s living in Thompson Station to a private school like BGA? I don’t think any of us want that.”
Sorrells knew when TISA was introduced, that change was coming since the state said they fund students, not districts. “I was for it, just because we got a lot more new money. So how could I be against new money for us? We knew- the directors, TEA (Teachers Education Association), TOSS (Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents), we knew. We knew that this was coming; it’s not a surprise,” said Sorrells.
Perry pointed out that staffing is also part of the voucher conversation. “We are all, nationwide, looking at teacher shortages. Things like this are only going to make it worse. They’re going to continue stripping away at what’s left of public schools – good families and good kids- and it’s going to be even harder to find good teachers. It’s just going to be a further weakening of public schools.”
When asked if any money intended for Marshall County Schools should be taken away and given to the newly announced Philos Classical Christian School in Chapel Hill, Sorrells said, “No. Public state dollars should stay with public schools.”
Whose Choice Is It
Being eligible for a voucher does not always mean a student will be able to use that voucher. We hear about school choice and assume it means parents have a choice on where their children go to school. Is that what the vouchers have provided so far, in other states?
Sorrells explained, “What’s interesting is what’s happened in Florida. They did this same thing last year. In Florida, 68% of the vouchers went to kids that were already in private schools. So really, in some ways, it’s just going to be a discount for people that are already in private school.” In September 2023, an NPR affiliate released the following data on recipients of vouchers in Florida, “84,505 of these new recipients (69%) were already in private school, 16,096 (13%) came from public schools.”
“They want choice – the governor, the people that talk about school choice. Remember, those private schools have the choice to not take my kid. We have to take everybody that lives in Marshall County. Private schools don’t have to take anyone. They can just pick and choose. They’ve got the choice,” Sorrells said.
Perry later said, “There’s some other states that are a few steps ahead of us in this and some of the data out of those states like Arizona, I just saw this week, people are using vouchers increasingly are people who already have their kids in private schools. Is that what this program’s intended to be? I think the Governor would tell you no, that this is to lift kids up that are in bad schools, bad districts, and bad situations, but that’s not what the data says in other states.”
Public schools require accountability. Private schools do not have that requirement. Sorrells said, “They don’t take TNReady; they don’t take TCAP. Look, I’m all for parents if they want to homeschool, then homeschool. If they want to send them to a private school, fine, send them to a private school. But, don’t take our tax dollars and give people that are already in a private school a discount. Don’t take money from public education. Why would we do that? Public funds should stay with public schools!”
Perry elaborated on the direct effect of the legislation’s consequences: “What kind of communities are we going to have if some of our best or most upwardly mobile citizens and families  are taking their kids out of our local schools that we’re all paying taxes for , and send them to other places? What kind of leaders are we going to have for the future? It’s like those people at the state level, the Governor, they just love beating up on public schools and blaming public schools for all of society’s ills. This is another weapon for them to try to hurt us.”
Is this what residents of Marshall County want? Is the reality of what we picture when we hear and read about school choice accurate? School choice goes much deeper than a decision about which school someone goes to. Perry said school vouchers will “tear the whole fabric of small communities everywhere.” Sorrells elaborated that the vouchers would be nothing more than a “segregation of the haves and the have nots.”