In an impromptu public debate over using public money to pay for private schooling, Shelby County Board of Education member Stephanie Love stood practically toe-to-toe Monday with voucher advocate Roxie Nunnally while impassioned opponents of vouchers — mainly public school teachers, parents, and community organizers — congregated in front of the district’s central offices in Memphis.
The discourse during an anti-voucher rally highlighted the intensity of emotion around Tennessee’s school voucher debate — especially in Memphis, the city that would be most impacted by a voucher bill advancing through the state legislature.
As the House Finance Committee prepares for a possible vote on the proposal on Tuesday, here’s our primer on school vouchers and the legislation under consideration:
Who would be eligible to receive vouchers?
The current bill would target students zoned to the bottom 5 percent of schools in Tennessee — most of which are in Memphis and Nashville, with some in Hamilton, Knox and Madison counties. It would impact 5,000 students in the program’s first year and reach 20,000 students annually in two years. If any vouchers remain after all eligible students receive them, they can be awarded to students who reside in a district that contains at least one school in the state’s bottom 5 percent — meaning potentially students zoned even to high-performing schools in Memphis, Nashville, Knoxville, Chattanooga and Jackson could cash vouchers out at a private school. Several Republican lawmakers, including House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick of Chattanooga, have said they hope the program would expand to even more students in the future.
How would vouchers impact student achievement?
That question strikes at the core of the debate.
Proponents say vouchers drive competition, and that competition makes all schools better and increase student achievement. They argue that anything would be better than the current situation for students who attend Tennessee’s lowest-performing schools.
Opponents say there’s no guarantee that a private school accepting a voucher would be of better quality than a public school, especially since private schools are less regulated. That’s what happened in Milwaukee, home of the nation’s oldest voucher program, where a crop of financially mismanaged and low-achieving private schools popped up after a 1992 school voucher law passed. Tennessee’s proposed legislation somewhat mitigates that concern by mandating that voucher-accepting schools be fully accredited by the State Department of Education or an agency approved by the state at least two years before they can accept voucher payments. Opponents also worry that private schools have no obligation to offer the same level of special education programming or afterschool care as public schools.
Researchers haven’t reached consensus on the impact of vouchers. A working paper by Duke, MIT and Harvard researchers for the National Bureau for Economic Research shows attendance at a voucher-eligible private school in Louisiana lowered scores on statewide math assessments and increased students’ likelihood of a failing score by 50 percent. Other studies have found that voucher programs have improved public schools and increased the likelihood of college enrollment.
How would vouchers impact public school funding?
Again, that’s unclear. Opponents say vouchers would leach much-needed funding from public schools, while proponents say the program wouldn’t overburden districts because public schools would be relieved of educating students now receiving vouchers. The bill’s current fiscal note predicts vouchers would cost districts with schools in the bottom 5 percent: $17 million in 2016-17; $26 million in 2017-18; $36 million in 2018-19; and more than $71 million in 2019-20 and subsequent years. It would cost state government $185,000 to pay for personnel to administer the program.
How much would vouchers be worth for each recipient?
In most districts, just under $7,000, although the amount varies based on local funding.
Would students use vouchers at any private school?
Probably not. Most students who use vouchers in states with programs that extend beyond special education go to previously established religious schools. In Indiana and Washington, D.C., more than half of these schools are Catholic, although in North Carolina, an Islamic school was the most popular school for parents using vouchers when the state launched the program in 2014.
Do private schools have to accept vouchers?
Plenty of private school administrators have said they won’t. In 2014, Vanderbilt researchers found that most Memphis-area private schools either could not or would not accept vouchers for reasons ranging from financial to ideological concerns. Private schools could not charge more than the voucher amount, which is a fraction of what some schools charge (nearing $30,000 annually at the most expensive private schools in Memphis and Nashville). Private schools might also be opposed to the amount of government regulation that comes with accepting vouchers. For instance, voucher recipients would be required to take state TNReady assessments or a nationally recognized test at the end of each school year.
If the House approves the voucher bill, would it likely become law?
The legislation would have to be signed by Gov. Bill Haslam, who has indicated his support. Currently, the proposal has reached the farthest it’s come in six years of legislative debate, passing in the Senate three of those years. Because Tennessee’s Senate approved the bill during the first half of the current 109th General Assembly, it needs only House approval to go to the governor’s desk.
Chalkbeat Memphis reporter Micaela Watts contributed to this report.