By Clyde Ussery
Every January when our state legislators return to Nashville it is, as Forrest Gump’s mama said, like a box of chocolates: we don’t know what we are going to get. It can range from the laughable to the alarming. Other than wasting time, frivolous bills probably don’t do a lot of damage, and they are a great source of amusement for the rest of the country. But we can’t trust our lawmakers to just provide comic relief. A bill now in the works should be setting off alarms all over the state. If enacted it could drive a stake in the heart of public education. The governor and the Republican-controlled legislature are pushing “opportunity scholarships,” a warm and fuzzy euphemism for school vouchers. But a skunk by any other name still stinks.
Some conservatives, alarmed that their kids might learn to think for themselves, demand “school choice.” The “choice” is less about overall quality of education than about ideas that conflict with parents’ religious beliefs. And heavens forbid that teachers should encourage “critical thinking.” (I’m afraid standardized testing has pretty much taken care of that already.) So here is the bottom line, they want taxpayers to foot the bill to send their kids to private schools.
Instead of fixing schools so all of our students get a better education, our learned lawmakers are promoting vouchers for a few. They are not trying to improve public education; they are trying to kill it. They are proposing to take taxpayer money away from public schools that educate the vast majority of our kids and funnel it into corporate and religious schools that are only interested in turning a profit or indoctrinating students with religious ideology. Then they can just sit back and watch the public schools die.
There are many reasons that a voucher-driven raid on scarce school funds would be bad for Tennessee. But there is an issue that trumps all those reasons. Voucher plans that include religious schools violate the First Amendment. It constitutes a direct government subsidy of religion. No citizen should be compelled by the government to furnish funds in support of any religion. I feel a profound obligation to pay taxes to finance the best public school system possible for all the children in Tennessee. If anyone wants to send their kids to private schools, that is fine and dandy with me. But I have no obligation whatsoever to finance it. I believe the majority of Tennesseans feel the same, and now is the time to let it be known.
Public education is the cornerstone of American democracy. Instead of this insane push for a voucher system, our lawmakers should be concentrating on making every school academically sound and adequately equipped, a place where all young people feel safe and valued for who they are. It should be a place where no one cares what religion or race you are or what language you speak; where no one cares what your gender or sexual orientation is; where no one cares how many disabilities you have or how much money your parents make. School should be a place that says welcome, come learn with us. That is an American value.