A contingent of school board members from across Tennessee traveled this week to Washington D.C., to talk with the state’s congressional delegation about three issues shaping public education in their home state.

Most notably, leaders of the Tennessee School Boards Association spoke with U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, who chairs the Senate education committee and helped to engineer the new federal law that replaced No Child Left Behind. The Tennessee Republican also has been at the forefront of Senate confirmation hearings for Betsy DeVos, the Michigan philanthropist and school choice advocate nominated by President Trump to lead the U.S. Department of Education.

Here’s what they discussed:

🔗School choice

As the Senate prepared to cast its confirmation vote on DeVos, TSBA leaders wanted to know Alexander’s definition of “school choice.”

“We were very pleased his definition were things we were already doing in Tennessee,” said Executive Director Tammy Grissom, citing magnet schools and open enrollment.

DeVos is a staunch proponent of tuition vouchers and has used part of her family fortune to advocate for them in her home state of Michigan as well as other states, including Tennessee. That’s a red flag for Tennessee school board members who have lobbied their state lawmakers against starting a voucher program. They argue that vouchers, which would enable some families to use public money to pay for private school, would siphon off badly needed resources from public schools.

“We want choice for disadvantaged students, but we already have it. We believe vouchers would create a system of the haves and have-nots,” Grissom said.

Alexander assured them that vouchers won’t be crammed down their throats from the federal government. The new Every Student Succeeds Act aims to give states greater flexibility in overseeing their schools.

“He is very much for local control. It’s all about giving control back to the states,” Grissom said. “The best form of governance of public education is the local school board.”

If DeVos is confirmed, she has said states would make their own decisions about whether to implement vouchers.

Alexander (left) talks with Wayne Blair and Tammy Grissom, president and executive director of the Tennessee School Boards Association.
PHOTO CREDIT: Tennessee School Boards Association

🔗Career and technical education

An effort to reauthorize federal funding for career and technical education, known as the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act, stalled in the Senate last year. It was continued for one year for the 11 million U.S. high school and postsecondary students affected. But TSBA members urged Alexander to push for the act’s reauthorization.

“Districts depend on that funding to continue career and technical classes,” Grissom said.

Career and technical education is an important component of Gov. Bill Haslam’s Drive to 55 initiative, which seeks in part to increase participation in certificate programs.

Alexander listened to concerns about the need for federal funding but did not indicate if he would sponsor legislation to reauthorize it, said Ben Torres, staff attorney for the TSBA.

🔗Special education funding

School services for students with disabilities receive federal funding under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), but Congress currently funds less than half of the maximum 40 percent of cost.

That’s not enough, according to TSBA leaders.

In Memphis, for instance, Shelby County Schools and the state-run Achievement School District struggle to keep up with the demand for special education services. Both districts serve primarily minority and impoverished students.

The TSBA-sponsored group traveling to Washington included:

  • Wayne Blair, president, Tennessee School Boards Association and Rutherford County Schools board member
  • Tammy Grissom, executive director, Tennessee School Boards Association
  • Ben Torres, staff attorney and director of government relations and policy, Tennessee School Boards Association
  • Miska Clay Bibbs, Shelby County Board of Education
  • Bob Alvey, Jackson-Madison County Board of Education
  • Alicia Barker, Franklin Special Board of Education
  • Jimmie Garland, Clarksville-Montgomery Board of Education
  • Faye Heatherly, Campbell County Board of Education
  • Aaron Holladay, Rutherford County Board of Education
  • Tim Stillings, Franklin Special Board of Education