Tennesseans Want Choices in Education

March 12, 2008 10:56PM

By Drew Johnson Public schools are the last place Tennessee’s parents want to send their children to learn, according to a poll of 1,200 Tennesseans released today by the Friedman Foundation and co-sponsored by the Tennessee Center for Policy Research. Respondents to the statewide poll of likely voters were asked which type of school they would select—regular public schools, charter schools, private schools or homeschooling—in order to obtain the best education for their children. Only 15 percent of Tennesseans polled said they would want their children to attend a regular public school. Thirty-seven percent would choose to send their children to a private school. Charter schools, which are public schools that have greater control over their own budget, staff and curriculum, ranked second with 28 percent. Another 18 percent of parents believe homeschooling would provide the best education for their children. Displeasure with the current State of Tennessee’s schools is hardly surprising; 64 percent of Tennesseans rated the public school system “fair” or “poor.” Despite spending nearly $8,000 per student, the State’s graduation rate hovers around 80 percent. It is easy to understand why parents and taxpayers have become disillusioned with business as usual at Tennessee’s public schools. Some of the poll’s findings, however, are surprising. Support for charter schools, for example, is particularly strong given that Tennessee’s weak charter school legislation bans charter schools in all but the four largest cities in the State. Further, charters are available only to children attending failing public schools. As a result, there are only twelve charter schools in the State—all in Nashville and Memphis. Even though most students in the State don’t have access to charter schools, nearly twice as many Tennesseans believe charters provide students with the highest possible quality of education compared to those who believe the same about regular public schools. Despite the popularity of charter schools and the hope that they provide for quality educational opportunities, they face an uncertain future in Tennessee. Unless State lawmakers reauthorize the law governing charters this year, the schools may be forced to close. These elected officials should take this opportunity, not only to reauthorize charter schools, but to allow charters to expand into more school districts and accept students from non-failing schools. Improving education in Tennessee must not end with expanding the availability of charter schools. Charter schools are one important option for parents, students and teachers, but more alternatives are needed. The poll indicates fertile ground for additional school choice opportunities, such as vouchers allowing disadvantaged students to attend the same schools available to children from affluent homes, or incentives that make it easier for families to homeschool their children, The results of the survey should give lawmakers courage to stand up to unions and bureaucrats who continue to covet power and protect the status quo to the detriment of Tennessee’s children. While lobbyists in Nashville may encourage State lawmakers to tolerate poorly-performing schools, constituents have made it clear that they will no longer accept a failing education system and are ready for change. The results of the survey are unmistakable: Tennesseans want choices when it comes to education. ###