Why are Vouchers only for Shelby County Schools?
This bill would pilot a voucher program for Shelby County School students. But, not a single State Representative from Shelby County would sign off on it. So, a BIG Memphis Thank-You goes out to Knoxville's Harry Brooks for sponsoring a bill that experiments with the education of Shelby County School students.
Always good to try things out first on other people's children.
But Knoxvillians shouldn't despair, sources indicate that the state legislature has plans to spread the voucher love across the state of Tennessee. Former Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey confirmed that he supported intentions to expand the program statewide when he recently spoke to a group of Shelby County Republicans in Bartlett.
After his remarks, local Republicans peppered him with questions. But Ramsey had few answers. He told the audience that in his neck of the woods, there is only one private school, a small Christian school called Tri-State Christian Academy. He went on to say he had been criticized in the past for charter school expansion. His response to his constituent was to point out the lack of charter schools in upper east Tennessee.
But that response didn't fly in Bartlett.
It was quickly pointed out to Ramsey that Shelby County is home to a large number of private schools. Audience members repeatedly asked him about the impact vouchers would have on public education in the Memphis area. But Ramsey sidestepped most of the questions saying he was just the salesman and did not know the details of the bill. One audience member asked if voucher money paid to private schools would be lost if a student returned to public schools. After repeating, he did not know how the bill would work, Ramsey got a little testy and responded by saying his focus was on children, not institutions.
But that might not necessarily be true. Ramsey was quite interested in one instituition—the Catholic/Parochial school system in Memphis. He mentioned Catholic schools several times as a superior alternative to public schools in Memphis. This prompted Shelby County Commissioner, David Reaves, to ask if the true purpose of the Memphis voucher pilot is to subsidize the financially distraught Memphis Jubilee Schools?
Are Vouchers Earmarked for Catholic Jubilee Schools?
"[T]he introduction of vouchers could dramatically change the Jubilee Schools’ financial picture. Jubilee Schools could stand to gain more than $2 million from vouchers if they managed to fill all their classroom space, meaning that Shelby County Schools and the Achievement School District would receive less." Two million would be a lot of money for the Jubilee Schools, considering their single largest donation to last year's scholarship fund was only $175,000 according to the Commercial Appeal.
The Memphis Flyer reports that the Jubilee Schools were not readily accepted at first with some complaining that reopening the old inner city Catholic Schools was not pragmatic. "Sister Mary Della Quinn, dean of mission and religious studies at St. Agnes Academy, is one of many posing those questions to the Diocese. 'It doesn't matter if someone gave $30 million; it just costs so much to run a school even for a year.' Quinn, like others within the Catholic school system, suggests that the re-openings are acts of nostalgia and that the money should pay for upgrading existing schools, increasing teacher salaries, and providing technology for more classrooms."
The Jubilee Schools got their start with an anonymous $15M donation in 1999 and have continued operations funded primarily by donations. One of the big Miracle Partner donors is none other than the Hyde Family Foundation—a big name in education reform who has been pumping money into Common Core, Teacher Evaluation Models, Charter Schools and all those other icky reform measures.
Is the Pope Catholic?
Mary McDonald, former superintendent for Memphis Catholic Schools made it clear that "the [Jubilee] schools are truly Catholic...We’re not a public school. We’re not a charter. We have the same values we’ve had for centuries—do the same things. We say prayer every day. We say the rosary at the same time every week. We have Mass for everyone.” McDonald goes on to say that over 80% of her students were non-Catholics.
But those nationally normed tests are not the same TCAP tests used to assess students in Tennessee public schools and that's just fine with Sen. Kelsey. Instead, Memphis Catholic schools who have aligned their curriculum to common core standards use the Iowa Assessment.
“They’re ready,” said Carra Powell, a lobbyist for Tennessee Federation for Children, and parent of two in Jubilee Schools and one recent graduate. “As soon as the voucher bill is passed, we’re rolling them in.”
Are Vouchers Really What's Best for Children?
"Competition makes everybody perform better," she said. "I think it does create a real hardship for the schools. But they are going to have to learn to compete the way the rest of us do."—Shelby County Commissioner Heidi Shafer
According to Peter Meyer's article on saving Catholic schools in America, competition from charter schools has contributed to the demise of inner city Catholic schools. The article quotes Father Ronald Nuzzi, director of the Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE) leadership program at Notre Dame, as saying, "charter schools are one of the biggest threats to Catholic schools in the inner city, hands down. How do you compete with an alternative that doesn’t cost anything?”
The article found that "vouchers are proving to be something of an antidote to the threat posed by charter schools." "In Milwaukee, for example, according to Paul Peterson, while charters have 'accelerated' the decline of private schools, vouchers seem to have 'stabilized' them." "The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel concluded in 2005 that 'the principal [sic] effect of choice' in the city has been 'to preserve the city’s private schools, many of them Lutheran and Catholic.' David Prothero, associate superintendent of schools for the archdiocese, says the 6,000 Catholic-school voucher students represent nearly half of Milwaukee’s Catholic school students. 'That’s significant.'”
Vouchers may be a boost to declining inner city Catholic schools but are they what's best for students? Without subjecting Catholic school students to the same assessments as their public student counterparts, we may never know the answer to that question.