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.

Unstuck

House panel advances Memphis school voucher bill with no recommendation

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
The Tennessee State Capitol in Nashville

After a three-week stall, a proposal to create a school voucher program in Memphis is on the move again as Tennessee’s legislature winds down its committee work.

Members of the House Government and Operations panel voted Wednesday to advance the bill to the chamber’s finance committee but gave only a neutral recommendation. The Government and Operations committee cannot kill a bill — only decide how to recommend — and voucher opponents had delayed action there for three weeks.

The measure is still at least two committee votes and two floor votes away from passage and has not yet been scheduled in the finance panel of the Senate, where vouchers have been passed three times since 2011. The path has been tougher in the House, where a proposal was pulled last year before a floor vote.

This year, supporters are optimistic that moving from a statewide bill to a pilot program in Memphis will garner support from legislators elsewhere in the state. Their constituents previously have voiced concerns that vouchers would siphon off students and funding from local traditional schools, and that students who accept vouchers would attend low-quality, unregulated private schools.

The 2017 bill has been amended so that voucher participants could take tests in their private schools that are different from what their counterparts take in public schools.

A majority of elected officials and advocacy groups from the Memphis area oppose the measure, saying it will harm their public schools and won’t benefit students who participate.

Supporters argue that giving Memphians more choices will rescue children trapped in “failing schools.”

Memphis has the state’s highest concentration of lowest-performing schools but, in the last decade, has seen significant headway through various programs.

Roll call!

As school voucher vote approaches in Nashville, most Memphis advocacy groups don’t want program piloted in their city

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Attendees of a 2016 conference in downtown Memphis chat against the backdrop of a bridge that crosses the Mississippi River.

A proposal that would try school vouchers in Memphis is among the last voucher bills alive in this year’s Tennessee’s legislature, where statewide measures have consistently come up short.

The bill, which its sponsors hope to dislodge from a House committee on Wednesday after three straight weeks there, would allow students in Shelby County Schools’ lowest-performing schools to receive public money to pay for private tuition. Leaders with the local district say the shift could cost the Memphis school system $18 million annually, and most locally elected officials have lined up against the bill.

Most grassroots advocacy groups in Memphis are siding against the proposal too. Here’s where local organizations stand on the pilot plan:

FOR

Campaign for School Equity
“We don’t think it will significantly damage or alter Shelby County Schools. We don’t think there will be a mass exodus. … We were wanting a statewide bill, but we don’t have any qualms about it starting in Memphis. Our purview is that low-income students and especially children of color have access to this.” —Mendell Grinter, executive director

Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Memphis chapter
“We’re making sure every child receives a quality education and every parent is given the opportunity to choose which form of education to send their child. And because of that, we have to support vouchers.” —Rev. Dwight Montgomery, president

AGAINST

Black Lives Matter, Memphis chapter
“We do not believe that taking funds from our already underfunded school system. … Vouchers do not invest in communities, as they take children out of their communities. We should work to reinvest in communities, not further marginalize them.”

Memphis Grassroots Organizations Coalition
“I hear a lot of chatter about providing folks with ‘every tool in the toolbox’ when it comes to education. But I rarely hear those same folks suggesting that fully funding traditional public education is the best tool. So I am longing and working for the day when we make a commitment to securing the full funding for the schools that educate the largest demographic of poor, black, and brown children to be advocated for by those who claim to be in it for the most vulnerable children and most challenged parents.” —Earle Fisher, spokesman

Memphis NAACP
Shelby County Schools “is the only district that fits that specific criteria, which makes this bill ‘appear’ to target a specific group. That appearance also calls into question its constitutional merit and causes the NAACP Memphis Branch to determine among other points that this bill is not only possibly unconstitutional but definitely unfair. If you want to pilot vouchers, do it in a small district to ‘test,’ not ours!”

Memphis-Shelby County Education Association, teachers union
“It is a pilfering of funds from public education. It is going to do irreparable damage to what is now the Shelby County Schools… We don’t even know who these schools will be. I do know they won’t be the Lausannes of the world; they will not be the (Memphis University Schools) of the world. They will be people who will create these fly-by-night schools, come in and destroy our children and move on. This school district has seen enough of using our students for pilots and programs.” —Keith Williams, executive director

United Education Association of Shelby County, teachers union
“Vouchers will divert money away from public schools… It is wrong for our students and wrong for our taxpayers.”

NEUTRAL

Memphis Lift, parent organization
“We are still fact finding. We haven’t found the facts that we need to take back to low-income communities, who these vouchers will serve. So our concerns are: How would you market this voucher system to low-income communities? And we also want to know which schools would take these vouchers.” —Sarah Carpenter, executive director

Are other grassroots organizations in Memphis taking a position? Email us at [email protected]