The Tennessee state legislature is currently debating two versions of a bill that would bring school vouchers into existence in our state. The Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO) welcomes and encourages the delivery of means-tested school vouchers to Tennessee, but our reasons for supporting vouchers aren't for any of the politically charged ideas that are often cited when school vouchers are discussed.
No, we support vouchers simply because they can help low-income and working class families access quality educational options for their children that would otherwise be out of reach for them.
The side that typically opposes school vouchers is interested in making sure the financial stability of public school systems remain in tact. The opposition is also well known for its willingness to fight to prevent parents from utilizing vouchers as a way for their children to leave failing schools. And while some may find their arguments valid, BAEO rests with our message that all families need access to high-quality options despite their income-level and geographic location. Access can come in form of a voucher, tax credit, charter school, or even in a traditional public school.
We understand there is hesitation around allowing vouchers into a state. We faced the same opposition when we advocated for them in Washington, D.C. 10 years ago. Not only was the DC Opportunity Scholarship program implemented, it has harvested many of the fruits we believed we would reap – low-income families have been able to send their children to high-quality private schools, and many of these children have become the first person in their family to attend and graduate from college. It continues to provide a proven path of educational options for families in the nation's Capital, who otherwise would not have one.
What should we tell Tennessee families who can't afford to make choices about their child's education? Do we tell them their child must stay in a failing public school that might not be the best place for them? Do we tell these families the funding mechanisms of our public schools are more important than the education and future of their child?
BAEO fights everyday to create, protect, and expand programs that increase opportunities for low-income and working-class families to access high-quality education for their children. The families we fight for lack the resources to send their child to a private school or move to a neighborhood with better schools. We advocate for policies that will bridge the gap in resources to help these families meet the educational needs of their children.
It's understandable that we sometimes get locked into our positions on issues, and making means-tested school vouchers available to low-income parents in Tennessee is certainly an issue with strong opinions on both sides. But we have an obligation to remember the most important point in the debate on school vouchers – that our children deserve a high-quality education. If a school voucher helps in the delivery of that good, we must support it for the future of our children and the future of Tennessee.
(Jennifer Littlejohn is State Director of Tennessee Black Alliance for Educational Options, #TNBAEO.)