School choice

Voucher-like proposal could take $71 million of public school funding from all Tennessee districts

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Rep. Roger Kane, center, is the sponsor of a bill that would allow up to 9,600 Tennessee students to use an Empowerment Scholarship Account of up to $7,000 each.

A $71 million-a-year proposal to allow public dollars to go toward private education services could reshape schools across the state, offering low-income and affluent parents alike unprecedented school choice.

Rep. Roger Kane introduced a bill on Tuesday that would allow any parent to use up to $7,000 of public school funding toward private schools, tutoring or other educational services. Called an Empowerment Scholarship Account, the proposal would be similar to a program that went into effect this year for special education students, but far more sweeping. All of Tennessee’s 1 million public school students would be eligible to participate, though the program would be capped at 9,600.  

It’s also far more extensive than voucher proposals that have deadlocked the legislature in recent years, as well as two competing voucher bills capturing headlines this session. Under those bills, families zoned to low-performing schools could use vouchers toward private school tuition. Parents would never handle the public money; it would go directly from local districts to private schools. And wealthy parents could not use the state money toward more expensive private school tuition.

But all families, regardless of income, could have a shot at Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, or ESAs, although parents in districts with low-performing schools would get priority. And parents would be paid the $7,000 directly, in quarterly installments.

If it passes, the legislation could divert millions of dollars from public schools to individual families and private services, although it’s not clear how many families would take advantage of the program. The fiscal note estimates Kane’s proposal would cost more than $71 million in local and state education funds each year beginning in 2018-19, and cost an additional million dollars annually to administer.

After a lengthy discussion, lawmakers in the House Education Administration and Planning subcommittee tabled the bill for two weeks. Rep. Harry Brooks, a Republican from Knoxville who chairs the full committee, said he doesn’t oppose the bill but has concerns about how private services would be held accountable if they accept taxpayer money.

Rep. Johnnie Turner was the only lawmaker to speak against the bill. The Memphis Democrat said she is concerned that ESAs would harm public schools by taking away much-needed funds from local districts.

Kane, also a Knoxville Republican, said the proposal would give parents far more choice than voucher proposals that have dominated Tennessee’s legislative debates for nearly a decade. He said being a parent has opened his eyes to the need for choices. He’s sent his children to both public and private schools, as well as home schooled them.

Kane called vouchers “one-size-fits-all,” as they can only be used at private schools that agree not to charge tuition beyond the voucher amount.

“It is truly customizing education to match the child,” he said of his proposal.

He acknowledged the possibility that parents could misuse the funds, but added that such abuses have not been widespread in states with similar programs.

Kane’s proposal is modeled after legislation adopted in Florida and Indiana and championed by the Foundation for Educational Excellence, founded by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, and the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC. The Senate sponsor is Dolores Gresham, a Somerville Republican who is chairwoman of the Senate Education.

While few lawmakers spoke against the proposal, several education leaders did, including Wayne Miller, director of the Tennessee Organization for School Superintendents, and Elizabeth Fiveash, assistant commissioner for policy for the State Department of Education, and as well as Jim Wrye, lobbyist for the Tennessee Education Association. Speaking in favor of the bill was a representative of the Beacon Center, an influential free-market think tank.

Tennessee’s Individualized Education Accounts for special education students went into effect in January. Only 47 of the 20,000 eligible students applied to use them so far.

Five questions

Why this Memphis Republican supports school vouchers — but is concerned about accountability

PHOTO: TN.gov
From left: Rep. Mark White of Memphis speaks with Gov. Bill Haslam at a bill-signing ceremony at the State Capitol.

Only one school voucher bill remains under consideration in Tennessee, and it’s all about Memphis.

The proposal, which would pilot a voucher program exclusively for students in Shelby County Schools, is putting a spotlight on the 16 state lawmakers who represent Memphis and Shelby County, including Rep. Mark White.

White is one of only four from the county’s legislative delegation to pledge support for the bill, which would allow some Memphis parents to use public education funding to pay for private school tuition.

The East Memphis Republican, whose district includes Germantown, has long supported vouchers. But he’s also concerned about how private schools would be held accountable if they accept public money.

Chalkbeat spoke with White this week about the legislature’s last remaining voucher proposal, as well as a bill to give in-state tuition to Tennessee high school students who are undocumented immigrants.

If vouchers pass, what kinds of things would you look for to ensure they’re effective?

PHOTO: TN.gov
<strong>Rep. Mark White</strong>

Accountability is important. Five years ago, when we we first considered vouchers full force, I was in agreement totally with vouchers, with not a lot of limitations. But … if we’re going to hold our public schools accountable, we need to hold everyone accountable, and that’s why I want to get to the part about TNReady (testing).

Can the Department (of Education) and can (the Comptroller’s Office of Research and Education Accountability) manage what the bill is asking them to do? I want to answer those questions. If we want to ensure that a student taking a voucher takes the TNReady test, who is going to oversee that? Who is going to make that happen? That’s the part I think we still need to work out if it moves forward through the various committees. It’s not good to go to the floor without all of the answers.

Most elected officials in Memphis oppose vouchers and are also concerned that this bill goes against local control over education. How do you respond to that?

I’d rather it be statewide. But you know, they’ve tried that in the past. The reason it got to be Shelby County is because we had more low-performing schools in the bottom 5 percent. And so therefore the bill got tied to Shelby County. If it was more someplace else, it would have gone there.

Shelby County Schools has made major improvements, boosting its graduation rate and receiving national attention for its school turnaround program, the Innovation Zone. Would vouchers undermine those efforts by diverting students and funding from the district?

Go back to 2002. We were looking for answers, so we started pushing charters. Those who wanted to preserve public schools fought that tooth and nail. Then we went to the Achievement School District. As a result, Shelby County Schools has created the Innovation Zone. …  Memphis is now known as Teacher Town. We’ve brought so much competition into the market. It’s a place where the best teachers are in demand. That’s what you want in every industry.

A lot of good things have come about, and I think it’s because we have pushed the envelope. Is this voucher thing one thing that keeps pushing us forward? I like that it’s a pilot, and we can stop it if we see things that aren’t working. I think trying all of these things and putting competition into the market has made things improve.

Every Memphis parent, student, and teacher who testified this week before a House education committee opposed vouchers. You’ve been steadfast in your support of them. What do you take away from hearing those speakers?

Any time you talk about children, people get passionate, and that’s a good thing. Conflict can be a good thing, because then we can move to resolve it. If you have an issue, look at it head on and let’s talk about it. If you don’t agree with vouchers, if you do agree vouchers, let’s talk about ways we can stop failing our children.

I’ve heard from just as many on the other side; they just weren’t here (on Tuesday). I’ve had an office full of people just begging us to pass this. I’ve had people on all sides want this.

I think this bill still has a long way to fly. We’ll see where it goes. But I think the challenge is good for all of us. It makes us look at ourselves.

You’re the sponsor of another bill to provide in-state tuition to undocumented immigrant students. This is the third year you’ve filed the bill. Why is that issue important?

What I’m trying to do is fix a situation for people who want to get a higher education degree. They’re caught up in the political mess of 2017, and all we’re trying to do is say, ‘Hey, you were brought to this country, and now we want to help you realize your dreams.’ We’re not trying to address any federal immigration issue. Everyone deserves a chance for an education.

And then there was one

This year’s list of school voucher bills just got shorter in Tennessee

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Sen. Dolores Gresham (right) chairs the Senate Education Committee. On Wednesday, she tabled a $71 million voucher-like proposal for consideration next year.

Tennessee lawmakers advocating for vouchers and similar school-choice programs are now rallying behind a single bill.

One tuition voucher bill died Wednesday in committee due to a lack of votes, while a more expansive voucher-like measure was tabled until next year. And the sponsor of a third bill, which would expand another voucher-like program for special education students, pulled that proposal from consideration as well.

After the flurry of action in the Senate Education Committee, voucher advocates only have a proposed pilot program in Memphis to focus on, and that bill appears to have momentum. Sponsored by Sen. Brian Kelsey of Germantown and Rep. Harry Brooks of Knoxville, the measure passed a House education committee on Tuesday, and heads next to the House Government and Operations and Senate Finance committees.

Sen. Todd Gardenhire

The voucher bill that stalled Wednesday was similar to one that almost became law last year. Sponsored by Sen. Todd Gardenhire of Chattanooga and Rep. Bill Dunn of Knoxville, the proposal would have impacted students in districts with “priority schools” in the state’s bottom 5 percent, which includes Memphis, Nashville, Knoxville, Chattanooga and Jackson. It garnered only four of the five votes needed to pass, with four senators electing to pass, and one voting no.

Meanwhile, Sen. Dolores Gresham announced that she was tabling until next year her voucher-like proposal that could shift up to $71 million annually in public dollars toward private education services.

Gresham, a Republican from Somerville who chairs the panel, said she wants to flesh out her proposal based on what other states, including Nevada and Arkansas, are doing to fund their massive school-choice programs.  

“I need some time to look at what they’re doing, because that might be very helpful in the future for us to fund empowerment scholarships,” she said. “I’m very excited about what I see happening across the country.”

Gresham added that momentum is building at the national level, too, now that Betsy DeVos is U.S. secretary of education under President Donald Trump. DeVos, a billionaire philanthropist from Michigan, has made a career of advocating to give parents more flexibility on how to spend public education funding.

“I’m excited to see what the new secretary might bring to the table,” she said.

Gresham’s bill, co-sponsored by Rep. Roger Kane of Knoxville, would allow any parent to use up to $7,000 of public school funding toward private schools, tutoring or other educational services through Empowerment Scholarship Accounts. The proposal would be similar to a program that went into effect this year for special education students, but far more sweeping.

All of Tennessee’s 1 million public school students would be eligible to participate, though the program would be capped at 9,600.

The state’s new voucher-like program for special education students was created by the legislature last year, and Kelsey was seeking this year to expand it. But the bill faced opposition due to the potential cost to public schools, and he took it off notice on Wednesday.