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City school board resolution opposes ESAs

Story by Elk Valley Times - Mar 27, 2019.

Citing a lack of accountability and the risk of fraud as chief concerns, Fayetteville Board of Education passed a resolution opposing Gov. Bill Lee’s Education Savings Account (ESA) proposal.

“The Tennessee General Assembly in the 2019 legislative session may entertain legislation that would create an Educational Savings Account (ESA) program allowing qualifying parents to use public funds for private education options (e.g., private school tuition, online coursework, homeschool expenses, etc.),” reads the resolution unanimously passed by the city school board during its March meeting.

“Although an ESA may be structured somewhat differently than traditional vouchers, an ESA would represent a redirection of public education dollars to private institutions,” the resolution reads.

Mark Clark, a member of the city school board and president-elect of the Tennessee School Boards Association (TSBA), noted his concern with a lack of accountability and an increased risk for fraud by some using ESAs.

“What this would be is literally a card, a debit card, that the state would load with money,” Clark told fellow board school board members.

“This is going to be a debit card that can be used for whatever,” he said. “It can be used at Walmart … I have to trust many parents will use this wisely and do the right thing, but I also have to trust the system will be fraught with abuse and fraud.

“There is no system in place to hold that family accountable for what they are going to do with that,” Clark added.

“Public schools are, by state constitution, required to educate all children in Tennessee,” he said. “You’re going to take money away from that constitutionally-mandated enterprise that has all kinds of accountability and checks and balances and assessments … and plug it into something with no testing, no assessment, no accountability.

 “The bottom line remains that no other government funds are invested by the State of Tennessee where there’s not some accountability for how those funds are used.”

Dr. Janine Wilson, director of schools, said the issue of ESAs has been discussed among superintendents across the state, including at a recent meeting of TOSS (Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents) members.

“One of the things that was a real eye-opener for me is that parents can bank the money they get from this account and save it for college tuition,” Wilson said. “It can go to parents who decide to homeschool, and they could just save it up.

“It won’t hurt our school system at this point,” she added. “It’s the future. It’s an attack on public education.”

The resolution passed by the school board has been sent to State Sen. Shane Reeves and State Reps. Pat Marsh and Rick Tillis, who represent the Fayetteville-Lincoln County community.

In part, the resolution reads, “More than 50 years have passed since private school vouchers were first proposed, and during that time, proponents have spent millions of dollars attempting to convince the public and lawmakers of the concept’s efficacy, and yet, five decades later, vouchers still remain controversial, unproven and unpopular; ESAs are an attempt to rebrand the voucher argument.

“ESAs eliminate public accountability by channeling tax dollars into private institutions that may not face state-approved academic standards, do not make budgets public, do not adhere to open meetings and records laws, may not publicly report on student achievement and do not face the public accountability requirements contained in major federal laws, including special education,” the resolution reads.

“ESAs create a risk of fraud, especially when public funds are distributed directly to a bank account rather than on a reimbursement basis; ESA programs require extensive auditing programs to ensure funds are used appropriately,” the resolution continues.

“ESAs leave many students behind, including those with the greatest needs, because public education dollars are channeled into private institutions that may not be required to accept all students, nor offer the special services they may need.

“ESA programs divert critical dollars and commitment from public schools to pay private education options for a few students, including many who already attend private schools or homeschool.”

The resolution continues, “ESAs are an inefficient use of taxpayer money because they compel taxpayers to support two school systems: one public, and one private, the latter of which is not accountable to all the taxpayers who support it.”

On Wednesday, the governor’s charter school bill passed in both the Tennessee General Assembly House and Senate education committees just one day after the ESA proposal advanced from the House curriculum subcommittee. 

“With the legislature’s hard work, school choice has momentum, and we are working together to put students first and strengthen our public education system,” Lee said in a press release issued to media. “Low-income students deserve the same opportunities, and we have a bold plan that levels the playing field while also focusing improvement on the lowest-performing school districts.”

The release also included comments of support from parents, legislators, educators and advocates from across the state.