Give Our Students A Better Chance To Succeed By Implementing ESAs - And Response

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Last week, the Chattanoogan covered Senator Gardenhire’s recent comments regarding Hamilton County’s education system, and his support for Governor Lee’s education reforms. Senator Gardenhire hit the nail on the head when he discussed the need to give Hamilton County students more options.

Let’s look at the numbers. According to the Tennessee Department of Education, Hamilton County’s success rate is only 36.4 percent. The achievement rates for math, English language arts, and social studies range between 31.3 percent and 33.6 percent. If one of my daughters brought home a test where she had scored a 33.6 percent, I would be concerned. My wife and I would figure out what happened, and investigate ways to improve, and try to ensure success in the future. 

Shouldn’t we apply that same approach to the county’s education performance as a whole?

When we pull the lens back even further, we see concerning graduation statistics. While 84.6 percent of Hamilton County students graduate on time, only 33.7 percent of those students demonstrate college or career readiness. We’re handing students a diploma but not the skills and proficiency the diploma is meant to signal.

These are not just statistics; these are real, individual children in Hamilton County Schools. Two out of three Hamilton County children not ready for life after graduation is far too many. Our children deserve a better chance at success.

If we continue to do the same thing again and again, we can only expect the same result. As part of a broader education plan to put students first and strengthen our public education system, Governor Bill Lee has proposed a cutting-edge, evidence-based Education Savings Account program. ESAs would enable parents to customize their child’s education, directing funding to the schools, courses, programs, and services of their choice.

Recognizing children’s unique needs, ESAs create a personal approach to education, where the ultimate goal is to maximize each child’s natural learning abilities. The funds can be used on tuition, extracurricular tutoring, textbooks, and online learning to best meet the student’s individual needs.

Tennessee already has a form of ESAs for students with special needs, and families using the program are happy with it. Gov. Lee’s plan extends that same program to students who currently attend public school in a district with a high concentration of struggling schools, which includes Hamilton County.

We have the opportunity to change the unacceptable status quo and give our students a higher chance for success with Governor Lee’s ESA program; it’s an opportunity we must take.

Critics argue that Governor Lee’s Education Savings Account program will take money away from our public schools, but that could not be further from the truth. In fact, funding is structured such that Hamilton County schools will receive more funding per student.

It is my hope that other Chattanooga area legislators, including Senator Bo Watson, Rep. Patsy Hazelwood, and Rep. Esther Helton join with Senator Gardenhire and Rep. Robin Smith in supporting the Governor’s ESA legislation. Our children deserve access to a school that works for them, and Governor Lee’s proposal will open doors for those children.

Shaka Mitchell
Executive Director of the Tennessee Federation for Children

* * * 

We at the Unity Group stand by the positions we have publicly outlined. To date, we have seen no compelling data or evidence that has convinced us that neo-vouchers such as Education Savings Accounts will ensure greater student achievement, cognitive development or enhanced opportunities than traditional models. In fact, we contend that the course the legislature is currently embarking upon in the General Assembly is likened to the establishment of  the Achievement School District that resulted in mass teacher turnover, school closures and funding shortages. In fact in many instances I-ZONE Schools outperformed the ASD.

As aforementioned, we have clearly detailed why we stand for a free fair and appropriate public education. A major reason for this is the evidence, data and information we have identified that speaks to the contrary on the expansion of vouchers.

In one recent report entitled Failing Brown v. Board: A Continuous Struggle Against Inequity in Public Education (2018), The Journey for Justice Alliance contends, "The fact is, public schools in Black and Latino communities are not 'failing.' They have been failed. More accurately, these schools have been sabotaged for years by policy-makers who fail to fully fund them, by ideologues who choose to experiment with them, by “entrepreneurs” who choose to extract public taxpayer dollars from education systems for their own pockets." 

The authors further elaborated in the report, "We also know what successful,fully-resourced schools look like: They offer a culturally relevant, engaging and challenging curriculum, smaller class sizes, more experienced teachers, wrap-around emotional and academic supports, a student-centered school climate and meaningful parent and community engagement. These are the hallmarks of what Journey for Justice calls sustainable community schools. These schools exist by the thousands across the country. But they rarely exist in communities struggling with poverty. We are seeking these schools—the schools that all our children deserve—in our communities.”

We remain staunchly and adamantly opposed to neo-vouchers and will continue to be until full accountability and transparency are readily visible in these proposals. By virtue, implementing ESAs and neo-vouchers will  not  guarantee our students will obtain true upward mobility,  the ability to become successful in their chosen life endeavors, nor afford them a pathway to a more sustainable and vibrant future. 

Eric Atkins
Unity Group of Chattanooga



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