POLL: Tennessee remains divided on school voucher proposals

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The same day MTSU released a poll on the school voucher plan proposed by Governor Bill Haslam, a vote in the House Education Subcommittee was approved by a 6 to 2 margin on Tuesday (2/26/13). The polls shows that Tennesseans remain divided statewide on Gov. Haslam’s plan to spend state money on private schooling for poor children in failing public schools, but views differ sharply by race and region, the latest MTSU Poll shows (school voucher plan).

Conducted Feb. 11-19, the telephone poll of 650 randomly selected Tennessee adults found 46 percent opposed to the plan of school vouchers but 40 percent in support of it — a statistical “dead heat,” given the poll’s four-percentage-point error margin. Another 12 percent of Tennesseans said they did not know, and the remaining 2 percent declined to answer.

“Statewide, it’s too close to call,” said Dr. Ken Blake, director of the poll at Middle Tennessee State University. “Opponents of the plan outnumbered supporters in our sample, but it’s unclear whether the same is true among all Tennesseans. They appear evenly, or nearly evenly, divided.”


However, opinions on the governor’s proposal (school vouchers) divide sharply by race, with 63 percent of minorities in favor compared to only 37 percent of whites. Twenty-eight percent of minorities oppose the measure, while the rest give no answer. By contrast, 48 percent of whites oppose the plan, while the rest give no answer.

An analysis of attitudes just among whites found whites in Middle Tennessee significantly more opposed (53 percent) than in favor (33 percent) with 12 percent undecided and the rest giving no answer. A similar pattern emerged among whites in West Tennessee, with 53 percent opposed, 28 percent in favor, 17 percent undecided and the rest giving no answer. Whites in East Tennessee were evenly divided, with 44 percent opposed, 43 percent in favor, 11 percent undecided and the rest giving no answer.


“Thus, a more nuanced analysis finds support for school vouchers strongest among the state’s minorities and opposition strongest among whites, especially those in the state’s Middle and Western regions,” Blake said.

Attitudes toward the plan are statistically uniform across party affiliation, with 38 percent of the governor’s fellow Republicans supporting the measure compared to 41 percent of independents and 45 percent of Democrats. The question asked respondents, “Suppose a child in Tennessee is poor and is attending a public school that is among the bottom 5 percent in overall achievement. Would you favor or oppose using state money to send such a child to a private school?”

How do Tennessee residents rank our schools? 

Meanwhile, Tennesseans give the quality of the state’s public schools about a “C” on average but give the quality of their local schools a significantly higher “C-plus” on average. Specifically, 8 percent give school quality statewide an “A,” while 28 percent give it a “B,” 36 percent give it a “C,” 8 percent give it a “D,” 6 percent give it an “F,” and 14 percent don’t know or decline to answer. By contrast, 18 percent give the quality of their local schools an “A,” 36 percent give it a “B,” 22 percent give it a “C,” 7 percent give it a “D,” 6 percent give it an “F,” and 11 percent don’t know or decline to answer.

As was the case in the Fall 2011 MTSU Poll, Tennesseans in the “doughnut” of counties circling Metro Nashville are significantly happier with the quality of their local public schools than are residents of Metro Nashville and Tennesseans living in West Tennessee. “Doughnut” dwellers give their local school quality a “B” on average, while West Tennesseans give their local school quality a “C-plus,” and Metro Nashville residents give their local school quality closer to a “C.”

Poll data were collected by Issues and Answers Network Inc. using balanced, random samples of Tennessee landline and cell phones. The data were weighted to match the latest available Census estimates of gender and race proportions in Tennessee.


Jimmy Hart
MTSU Director, News & Media Relations 

Read the porposed legislation on school vouchers

More on past proposals

School Vouchers - As introduced, enacts the "Tennesse Choice & Opportunity Scholarship Act." - Amends TCA Title 49, Chapter 1.


Fiscal Summary


Increase State Expenditures - $173,000 Other Fiscal Impact - There will be annual shifts of state and local BEP funding from local education agencies to the non-public participating schools of the proposed program. Approximately $15,842,500 is estimated to shift in FY13-14; $24,356,300 is estimated to shift in FY14-15; $33,285,000 is estimated to shift in FY15-16; $68,230,000 is estimated to shift in FY16-17; and an amount estimated to exceed $68,230,000 is estimated to shift in FY17-18 and subsequent fiscal years.


Bill Summary


This bill establishes a scholarship program for eligible students to attend participating private K-12 schools. An "eligible student" is a student who:

(1) Resides in Tennessee and is zoned to attend or enrolled in a public school that, at the time of the student's initial application for a scholarship, is identified as being in the bottom 5 percent of schools in overall achievement;
(2) Meets the minimum age requirements to attend kindergarten with eligibility extending until the student graduates from high school, except that the student must be less than 22 years of age by August 15 of each year;
(3) Is a member of a household whose annual income during the year prior to initial receipt of a scholarship met the requirements for free or reduced price lunch; and
(4) Was previously enrolled in a Tennessee public school during the two semesters immediately preceding the semester in which the student receives a scholarship under this bill; is enrolling in a Tennessee school for the first time; or received a scholarship pursuant to this bill in the previous school year.

In order to participate in this program, the private school must:

(1) Be identified as a category I, II, or III school and comply with all health and safety laws or codes that are applicable to such schools; 
(2) Annually administer to scholarship students state assessments or nationally recognized tests approved by the state board of education that measure educational progress and provide the parents of scholarship students the results of the assessments;
(3) Provide the department of education with graduation rates of scholarship students as well as other student information as required by the department;
(4) Comply with federal nondiscrimination policies and not discriminate against students with special education needs who meet the requirements for admission to the school. However, as a private school, the school is required to offer only those services it already provides to assist students with special needs. If a scholarship student would have been entitled to receive special education services in the public school the student would otherwise be attending, then the parent must acknowledge in writing, as part of the enrollment process, that the parent agrees to accept only services that are available to the student in the private school. A participating school may partner with an LEA to provide special education services; 
(5) Accept the scholarship amount as payment in full for the cost of tuition and fees that would otherwise be charged by the school and allow scholarship students to remain enrolled in the school for the duration of the school year at no additional cost if the school withdraws from the program during the school year;
(6) Submit to the department a financial audit of the school conducted by a certified public accountant (CPA);
(7) Demonstrate financial viability to repay any funds that may be owed to the state by filing with the department financial information verifying the school has the ability to pay an amount equal to the amount of the scholarships expected to be paid during the school year. The school may comply with this requirement by filing a surety bond payable to the state; and
(8) Require any person applying for a position as a teacher, or any other position requiring close proximity to children, to submit to a criminal background check. 

After initial approval by the department as a participating school, a school may continue to participate in the program as long as the school demonstrates achievement growth for scholarship students at a minimum level of "at expectations". If a participating school demonstrates achievement growth for scholarship students at a level of "significantly below expectations" for two consecutive years or the department determines the school has failed to comply with this bill, then the commissioner of education may suspend or terminate a school's participation in the program. If a participating school is suspended or terminated from the program, or if the school otherwise withdraws from the program, scholarship students enrolled at the school may transfer to another participating school without loss of eligibility and such students would be given preference for enrollment. An eligible student is entitled to one scholarship per school year, and if the student voluntarily leaves a participating school for reasons other than suspension or termination of the school, and enrolls in another participating school, then neither the student nor the successor participating school may receive any funds under this bill for the payment of tuition and fees for the remainder of the school year.

The maximum amount of the scholarship would be the lesser of the following:

(1) The cost of tuition and fees that would otherwise be charged by the school; or
(2) The amount representing the per pupil state and local funds generated and required through the Basic Education Program (BEP) for the LEA in which the student resides and is zoned to attend.

The scholarship funds would be subtracted from the state funds otherwise payable to the LEA and would be paid directly to the participating school. 

The total number of scholarships awarded statewide under this bill would be limited as follows:

(1) For the 2013-14 school year, the department may not award more than 5,000 scholarships;
(2) For the 2014-15 school year, the department may not award more than 7,500 scholarships;
(3) For the 2015-16 school year, the department may not award more than 10,000 scholarships; and
(4) For the 2016-17 school year and thereafter, the department may not award more than 20,000 scholarships. 

If the number of eligible students who submit applications to the department for a scholarship exceeds the permissible number of scholarships available statewide or the available seats at participating schools for any grade level, then the department must conduct a random selection process for awarding scholarships. The department would give preference to students already enrolled in the participating school and to siblings of such students. 

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