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WSJ, Tennessee chambers of commerce in spat over school choice bill

The Wall Street Journal has picked a fight with local Chambers of Commerce in Tennessee over their hesitance to support a state voucher program that recently passed the state’s Senate, prompting the business groups to write a strongly-worded letter to the editor in return.

In a May 13 editorial, the paper condemned the Chambers of Commerce in Chattanooga, Knoxville and Nashville for joining “with the teachers unions to kill education vouchers.” The claim is a reference to an April 27 letter the chambers wrote to the state legislature, asking lawmakers to consider the metrics used to determine how private schools will spend the money. The letter also expressed concern the language of the bill allowed for insufficient oversight monitoring students’ performance in voucher programs.

The WSJ editorial then lobbed charges of hypocrisy at the chamber groups:

The Tennessee chambers aren’t nearly as opposed to public money going to private institutions when they receive the checks. A study by the Tennessee Center for Policy Research discovered that over the past several years the Chattanooga Chamber has received $450,000 in state and local funds. The Nashville Chamber has received nearly $3 million in taxpayer subsidies.

We doubt a single child of officials in these chambers of commerce attends a school in the poor parts of Memphis or other places where dreams die before high school. Yet these captains of industry are willing to deny that choice to others. Business executives who really want to make the U.S. more competitive ought to stop contributing to lobbies that want to preserve the dreadful status quo.

On Tuesday, the city chamber groups responded (PDF), accusing the paper of misrepresentation and incorrect statements about their finances.

Highlights include:

In the April 27 letter, we clearly stated that a voucher system needs to be debated more thoroughly. Accountability is a critical element in Tennessee’s education reform efforts, and the original bill included no such measures. Spending public dollars at private schools without being able to track student progress and the return on the public’s investment is at issue here. Additionally, the capacity of private schools to accept students has not been examined.

[...]

The column also inaccurately states that the Nashville Chamber receives government subsidies of $3 million. Local governments in Chattanooga, Knoxville, and Nashville contract for economic development services with each chamber – services for which the local governments receive regular reports. The Nashville Chamber’s annual contract amount is actually $300,000.

Finally, but not insignificantly, The *Wall Street Journal *inaccurately reported the status of the Tennessee Equal Opportunity Scholarship Act. The bill was not “killed,” but referred to a Summer Study Committee, which will provide the opportunity to review the bill and its implications more carefully.

The Tennessee Equal Opportunity Scholarship Act seeks (PDF) to offer poor students living in districts with at least 38,000 students a voucher to attend a private school worth 95 percent of what the state would pay to have that student enroll in a public school. Total spending per pupil in Tennessee is lower than the national average; the state ranks near last in spending at just over $7,800, but that figure includes federal dollar contributions. Non-federal funding per pupil was $3,892 in 2008, according to the Federal Education Budget Project.

The Children’s Defense Fund lists child poverty in Tennessee at 24 percent; 11 percent of minors living in the state are in extreme poverty. Of the 1,493,252 children who live in Tennessee, 394,134 receive food stamps.

The American Independent also questions the source of WSJ’s claim that “the vouchers are capped at 50% of the per-student costs of the public schools.” As stated, federal funding contributes over 50 percent of total funding; the language of the bill clearly states 95 percent of state funding will go toward per-voucher funding.

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