Voucher momentum

Tuition voucher bill targeting Memphis breezes through key Senate committee

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Sen. Brian Kelsey of Germantown sponsors the bill that lawmakers appear to be coalescing around.

A day after clearing its first hurdle in the House, a proposal to pilot a tuition voucher program in Memphis sailed Wednesday through its first test in the Senate.

The unanimous vote was expected in the Senate Education Committee, just as it was on Tuesday in a House subcommittee comprised mainly of voucher supporters. With five of nine Senate committee members co-sponsoring the bill, the issue was all but decided before discussion even began. Lobbyists from groups that oppose vouchers — including school systems, school boards and the superintendents association — didn’t even bother to testify before the Senate panel.

The Senate has perennially green-lighted a larger voucher program, only for the bill to fizzle in the House. Sponsor Sen. Brian Kelsey said that’s why he wants to try a more targeted approach aimed at Memphis.

Kelsey, a Republican from Germantown, attended a Memphis-area private school, and credited his education with “making me who I am today.”

The measure now goes to the Senate Finance Committee, while the House version heads to the House Administration and Planning Committee.

Members of the Senate Education Committee expressed eagerness in the coming weeks to pass other bills that would redirect public money to private schools, making clear their commitment to expanding school choice options during this legislative session. Lawmakers rolled bills to expand a voucher-like program for special education students, as well as establish a $71 million choice program for students in all districts, in order to tighten the proposals and increase their chances of passage.

Such policies are being hailed by President Donald Trump, who called on lawmakers last week to fund school choice programs for “disadvantaged youth,” and U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who has made a career of advocating to allow public education money to be spent for private or religious schools.

Proponents say vouchers drive competition, and that competition makes all schools better and increase student achievement. Opponents say they would divert funding from public schools and that 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.

Under the Memphis pilot proposal, lawmakers would decide whether to continue, expand or terminate vouchers after five years, depending on how successful those students are. Participation would be capped at 5,000 students, costing Shelby County Schools about $18 million a year.

It’s a much smaller program than the voucher bill that has dominated debate in recent years, and that is being sponsored again this year by Sen. Todd Gardenhire and Rep. Bill Dunn. That bill focuses on all districts with “priority schools” in the bottom 5 percent, and does not come with a potential expiration date. Gardenhire rolled the measure on Wednesday for a week so he can make some small amendments, like pushing back the start date to 2018.

The wider voucher bill made it all the way to the House floor last year before Dunn pulled it at the last minute, saying he was just short of the votes needed for passage. Lawmakers had heard from constituents concerned that vouchers would siphon off funding from public schools.

Lobbyists against a Memphis pilot program hope the same pushback will happen this year. They argued on Tuesday that a voucher program that begins in Memphis eventually would be expanded to other districts.

deal breaker

Some Catholic schools may shun Memphis voucher program over TNReady

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Rep. Harry Brooks, who is sponsoring a bill to pilot school vouchers in Memphis, answers questions Wednesday from Rep. Mike Stewart during a House committee meeting.

Some of the 24 Catholic schools in Memphis might not accept school vouchers if their students have to take Tennessee’s state tests, a lobbyist told lawmakers on Wednesday.

“We’ve heard that to take the state test means to teach the state test, and if that changes our curriculum, I don’t know if we can participate,” said Jennifer Murphy, who represents the Tennessee Catholic Public Policy Commission.

Murphy didn’t specify which schools, but some have said they’re on board with state testing.  Leaders of Jubilee Catholic Schools have told lawmakers that they are willing for their students to take the state’s TNReady assessment if the legislature pilots a voucher program in Memphis.

Jubilee’s participation is critical because its nine schools, which serve mostly low-income Memphis families, are among the city’s only private schools that have expressed interest in the voucher program making its way through the Tennessee legislature. Tuition at many private schools in Memphis is significantly higher than the voucher amount of $7,000 each year, and the bill would not allow schools to charge more than the voucher’s value. 

How to hold private schools accountable if they accept public funds has been central to the voucher debate in Tennessee and nationwide.

Murphy’s comments came during a lengthy debate in the House Government and Operations Committee and appeared to slow the momentum for a voucher bill. The clock ran out Wednesday before members could vote on the measure, and they are scheduled to pick it up again next week.

In the Senate, the proposal is awaiting action by the chamber’s finance committee.

Correction: March 29, 2017: A previous version of this story said that Jubilee Catholic Schools might not participate in a voucher plan if their students have to take state tests. Representatives of Jubilee said Wednesday that the network is open both to accepting vouchers and administering state tests to participating students.

Fiery remarks

Memphis lawmaker, voucher advocate says ‘unraised’ students hold back public schools, teachers

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Rep. John DeBerry, a Democrat, has represented House District 90 in Memphis since 1995.

A state lawmaker from Memphis delivered a fiery speech Tuesday in which he said public schools are filled with “immoral” students whose parents “can care less” about their education. He also defended student suspensions and the right of teachers to fight back.

The comments came from Rep. John DeBerry, who is Memphis’s strongest proponent of school vouchers in the legislature, during a discussion of a Teachers Bill of Rights that lawmakers are considering putting in place.

The remarks offered new insight into DeBerry’s motivation for wanting families to be able to use public funding to pay private school tuition — to allow students to escape surroundings he described as an educational hellscape.

“We’ve got people who can care less whether or not their child is educated, just as long as their child is out of the house so they can go back to bed. And while it is not politically correct to say stuff like that, we all know it exists,” said DeBerry, a Democrat who consistently has promoted vouchers as a tool to help students escape “failing” schools.

“So when we take that teacher and take 25 to 30 unraised, untaught, irremannerable [sic], immoral, don’t-care-you-can’t-teach-give-a-flip, you can’t teach that,” he said. “You’ve got chaos and you’ve got good little children who want to learn trapped in that mess and a teacher who wants to control it.”

The Teachers Bill of Rights — written with input from the Professional Educators of Tennessee, the second-largest teachers association in the state — is intended to signify lawmakers’ respect for the teaching profession. It declares that teachers should be allowed to defend themselves against students and to report offensive behavior to administrators.

“We hope teachers are going to feel empowered,” said J.C. Bowman, the group’s president. “At last this legislative body is sending a message that (teachers) are indeed respected for what they do.”

The measure originally included items about teacher evaluation and out-of-pocket spending, but now features only rights related to student behavior. One sponsor of the bill, Rep. Jay Reedy, said he hopes to add those rights back in the future.

The House Education Administration and Planning Committee on Tuesday passed both the Bill of Rights and legislation from Rep. Raumesh Akbari, another Memphis Democrat, that would require the state to try to reduce suspensions in prekindergarten and kindergarten. DeBerry questioned if alternatives to suspension are necessary.

“Of course they’re going to [need to] send students out of school, even in kindergarten, because you’re not sending a student to school; you’re sending a problem,” DeBerry said.