During a legislative update at the Franklin Special School District’s annual Board of Education retreat Saturday morning at Moore Elementary School, board members and FSSD staff heard about Gov. Bill Lee’s emphasis on education, the state’s priorities on mental health of students and the continued vigilance on providing school safety across Tennessee.
And perhaps not surprisingly, the subject of vouchers came us as well.
Sen. Jack Johnson — who attended the retreat along with Reps. Glen Casada, Sam Whitson and Brandon Ogles — defended what was passed last year as Tennessee’s Education Savings Account Pilot Program, set to launch in the 2021–22 school year and is the state’s first voucher program. The state-funded voucher is available to students from low- and middle-income households in Shelby and Davidson counties, giving them options to attend private schools.
FSSD board member Alicia Spencer Barker broached the subject of vouchers when she asked the legislators about inconsistencies in testing standards between public and private schools. She said public education money is being used in a private school, but a child attending a private school under that funding will not be held to the same standards as one in a public school.
“This is 7,500 students [in Davidson and Shelby counties] out of a million statewide,” Johnson explained. “Why are we so fixated on taking the exact same test? These 7,500 kids that are in failing schools right now … [are] going to be denied an opportunity to pursue the American dream because the education system is failing them.
“Let’s give them a lifeline, let’s get them into another school where perhaps they’ll have an opportunity to succeed. Nothing’s in stone. We’ve changed this as time goes on. This is a pilot program in two school systems.”
Vouchers have been controversial for some time in Tennessee, with public education advocates generally against them. The Tennessee School Board Association, for one, is opposed to publicly funded vouchers that would divert money intended for public education to private schools or organizations.
Otherwise Saturday, legislators focused on matters pertaining to school safety. Ogles, in his first year as a state representative, helped to champion a bill last spring that is meant to prevent violence, manage reports of potential threats, and create a system that fosters a safe, supportive and effective school environment.
“The threat assessment bill statewide was one of the best pieces of legislation, I think,” he said.
“That was a heavy, heavy lift to get people to recognize that the state had a fiduciary duty to step in to funding school safety,” Ogles added. “I think you’ll continue to see more funding to get us to a place where that’s a top priority. I know school boards like the word permissive, but I’m very grumpy on the fact school safety should not be permissive. Districts should not have a choice on whether or not they fund school safety. I think it’s important, and polling shows that parents think it’s more important than any job that any of us do, to the tune of 92%.”
Education-wise, the emphasis for this year’s General Assembly appears to be the funding of mental and behavioral health counselors.
“You can expect some legislation and an effort to push for additional funding relative to mental health counselors in schools,” Johnson said.
FSSD Director of Schools David Snowden said mental health is a key topic in both his district and in Williamson County Schools. Snowden and WCS Superintendent Jason Golden say their biggest challenge involves mental health among students.
“We’ve spoken to several groups over the past six months, and when they ask us what’s one of our biggest challenges, we tell them it’s the increasing number of students with mental health issues,” Snowden said. “And obviously, it doesn’t just impact the education of those students [with a mental health issue], but it impacts all the other students. I know if it’s happening in Williamson County and Franklin, it’s happening across the state.”
The FSSD school board will hold its regular meeting Monday at 6:30 p.m. at Johnson Elementary School.