School Board members say state sends mixed signals on vouchers, - | Chattanooga News, Weather & Sports

School Board members: State sends mixed signals on vouchers, iZone

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Greg Martin Greg Martin
Jeffrey Wilson Jeffrey Wilson
Mike Evatt Mike Evatt
George Ricks George Ricks
Hamilton County School Board Retreat Hamilton County School Board Retreat

CHATTANOOGA (WRCB)- Some Hamilton County School Board members say they're confused by "mixed messages" coming from Tennessee education officials and legislators.  On the one hand, says District 3 representative Greg Martin, "they're pumping millions of dollars into our five lowest-performing schools."  On the other hand he adds, "then they want to encourage students to leave those same schools by giving them vouchers to attend private schools."  He commented on the topic at a retreat held Saturday at the school district's central office.

Martin was referring to Governor Bill Haslam's proposal to implement a gradually-increasing school voucher program later this year that would allow low-income children in the state's lowest-performing public schools to use tax dollars to attend private schools. 

In Hamilton County, the five schools that have been identified as scoring in the lowest five percent are Brainerd High, Orchard Knob Middle, Dalewood Middle, Orchard Knob Elementary and Woodmore Elementary.  Martin's "mixed message" comment was a reaction to the news that the same five schools, grouped together as "the Innovation Zone, or iZone," will be receiving up to $10.5 million in federal grant money after convincing state officials they will re-constitute to boost student performance.

County school administrators say the grant money will be used to hire more qualified teachers, offer those teachers higher salaries, provide more classroom time for students, and purchase updated technology.  New administrators and staffs are already in place at several of the schools.  Brainerd High required all core subject teachers to re-apply for their jobs, and sources tell Eyewitness News that only a "small percentage" will be retained.

District 4 Board member George Ricks agreed with Martin, and expressed concern over what would happen to Brainerd teachers who are displaced by the iZone moves.  "These people have busted their butts for us, and some principals won't want to hire them because of this stigma that they aren't good teachers.  These are good people, and we need to make sure they're treated right."  Superintendent Rick Smith responded, "We will take care of them.  Some of them need help, some professional assistance and we are aware of that."

Board Chair Mike Evatt addressed the vouchers/iZone issue, saying "It's like the State Legislature is trying to please everybody.  They're trying to make a big splash with vouchers.  I don't think they're being good stewards of our tax dollars."

Jeffrey Wilson, who represents District 5 which includes Brainerd High, says he's glad such schools are getting attention and improvements, but expressed skepticism about an influx of new teachers.  "We're moving a lot of teachers out of Brainerd because they don't measure up.  But then what if we replace them with brand new teachers who have no track record, no test scores to measure.  How do we know if they're better teachers?   What if they're not?"

Martin asked Smith, "What if we make all these moves, spend all this grant money, and the situation doesn't improve?  I'm not saying that will happen, but what if it does?"  Smith said he expected the schools to improve in the iZone program, but "if they don't, the state could take them over somewhere down the road."  He later added, "We will not tolerate low-performing teachers."

Martin concluded, "It's a mixed message.  Make up your mind.  Does the state want to send money to make these schools better, encouraging families to stay?  Or do they want to send money to encourage them to leave those schools?"

If the governor's proposal is approved by lawmakers, the voucher program would be limited in its first year to 5,000 students whose family income makes them eligible for free or reduced-price lunch programs. The number would gradually increase to 20,000 by the 2016-17 school year.  Although no exact dollar figure has been released, most estimates place the amount at approximately $5,000 to $7,000 per year, which is generally at the low range of many Hamilton County private schools.

School Board members use the retreat format to discuss school issues in a casual, informal atmosphere.  Retreats were held annually for many years, but this was the first such meeting in Hamilton County since 2009.

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