By MARINA WATERS
Former Lieutenant Governor Ron Ramsey’s black truck rolled down Second Avenue in search of the small yellow building in which he’d be talking with the Kiwanis Club of Jonesborough. Ramsey wasn’t in Tennessee’s oldest town to talk East Tennessee State University basketball (of which he’s a fan) or to explore the nearby downtown streets of Jonesborough.
He was on a mission to talk to Tennesseans about the Tennessee Choice & Opportunity Scholarship Act.
“We don’t understand it in Northeast Tennessee because we have great schools. But there are some areas like Memphis, like Nashville that parents need a choice on where to send their kids,” Ramsey said. “And I’m traveling the state right now trying to spread that word.”
Ramsey has travelled to numerous towns across Tennessee as part of the tour organized by Tennesseans for Conservative Action in favor of the bill that offers scholarships to students who are zoned for a school within the bottom five percent of schools in Tennessee. This would allow students from these low-success public schools—who must also be eligible for free or reduced-price lunch—to attend a participating private school.
Ramsey said the system, as it is now, only allows a family two decisions in making sure their child attends a better school.
“We have school choice now for parents that have means,” Ramsey said. “You either have the money to send your kid to private school or you simply move. For those kids that are stuck in those failing schools in the inner city, I think they need some kind of a voucher system.”
Though the bill has gained support from many Republicans in the House, it comes with opposition as well; Ramsey said many school boards are not in favor of the act due to the fear of pulling money from public schools and putting more money into private schools.
“I’ve heard that it’s taking money away from public schools and stuff like that,” Ramsey said. “But to say that, you have to say that I’m more for the system than I am for the student. And the way most of these programs are designed, half the money stays with the school system, half goes with the students.”
As for students who might fall behind at their new private school thanks to these vouchers, Ramsey said individual education plans where multiple faculty and staff — along with the student and his or her parents — can create a plan to keep the student on the right track can also be of assistance.
Ramsey also said the bill wouldn’t really affect Northeast Tennessee.
“It won’t affect (an area like Jonesborough) at all. I really don’t think so,” Ramsey said “That’s what frustrates me at times, that we have people that aren’t necessarily for it around here when it won’t affect Northeast Tennessee at all. You’ve got to think, we’re about raising the whole ship, the whole state of Tennessee, not just us. We’re the example, not the problem.”
Ramsey also has a focus on higher education. The former Tennessee Lieutenant Governor is now on the East Tennessee State University Board of Trustees. And in his post-political career, he’s ready to help ETSU adapt its policies to that of the region.
“What works for the University of Memphis doesn’t necessarily work for East Tennessee State,” Ramsey explained. “So we passed a bill to allow each of these six four-year schools to have their own board. So now we can decide what majors we need at ETSU, what are the policies we need for ETSU. If we decide there’s a certain major at ETSU to get a good job at Eastman or somewhere else, we can do that over night instead of going through a big bureaucracy to get there.”