And so it begins

Tennessee lawmakers take first step toward school vouchers

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Students attend a summer program at De La Salle Elementary, a Catholic school in Memphis that has been open to accepting state-funded tuition vouchers.

In their first discussion of tuition vouchers this year, Tennessee lawmakers insisted Tuesday that the state can succeed where others have failed, and easily advanced a proposal that would start a five-year pilot program in Memphis.

The voice vote came after members of a House education subcommittee heard voucher opponents cite recent research showing that vouchers in other states have led to worse academic outcomes for students. But again and again, lawmakers said that Tennessee could be different.

“There are some instances where vouchers haven’t worked, but we’ve never tested them in Tennessee,” said Rep. Harry Brooks, the Knoxville Republican sponsoring the bill.

“We are Tennessee,” added Rep. Eddie Smith, another Knoxville Republican. “We are not Louisiana, we are not Florida, we are not anyone else. We can design a system that works for Tennessee.”

Rep. John DeBerry, a Memphis Democrat who has passionately advocated for vouchers, was dismissive of the studies. “Please, let’s not throw big-picture numbers around,” he said. “This is about one set of parents deciding about one student.”

What is not working, the lawmakers agreed, are public schools in Memphis. While lauding gains in recent years, they said too many students remain trapped in failing schools.

The vote was the first on vouchers in Tennessee since last winter, when the legislature almost passed a similar bill. The sponsor of that measure, Rep. Bill Dunn of Knoxville, said he didn’t have enough votes and pulled it at the last minute on the House floor. This year, Dunn is carrying the same bill, which impacts other urban districts, as well as Memphis.

Rep. Mark White, a Memphis Republican who chairs the subcommittee, said Tuesday evening that lawmakers seem poised to rally this year behind Brooks’ proposal, which is being carried in the Senate by Brian Kelsey, a Republican from Germantown, a bedroom community of Memphis.

The Senate Education Committee is scheduled to discuss both bills on Wednesday.

Tennessee’s voucher proposals are targeting schools already struggling with enrollment. Read why that matters.

Supporters argue that vouchers provide school choice that empowers parents and leads to better academic outcomes. Opponents fear that diverting money to private schools hurts public schools, and that a lack of regulation of private schools means that students accepting vouchers won’t necessarily get a better education.

The bill would cap the voucher program at 5,000 students, and provide them with tuition vouchers worth about $7,000 annually. After five years, lawmakers would decide whether to halt or expand the program, depending on students’ test scores. However, Brooks said he is still hammering out details around comparing students in public schools to their counterparts who accept vouchers.

DeBerry said the proposal might not be perfect — but that few policies are. “At some point it has to start so we can find out what works, what does not work,” he said.

The Memphis Democrat also projected that few students would actually opt to participate, meaning public schools would not lose as much funding as its leaders fear. “A lot of folks are not going to put in the time, the effort,” DeBerry said, “but for the handful of parents that do, why not give them that right?”

Indeed, only 35 out of 20,000 eligible students are participating in a voucher-like special education program, the first of its kind in Tennessee, which launched in January.


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:


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


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.”


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]