Here’s what you need to know about Tennessee’s latest voucher proposal

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

After years of near misses, some Tennessee lawmakers are trying a more targeted approach to tuition vouchers with a proposal to pilot them exclusively in Memphis.

For more than five years, lawmakers have debated the merits of creating a voucher program that would allow parents of students in low-performing schools to use public funds to pay for private school tuition.

But the new Memphis-focused bill, sponsored by Sen. Brian Kelsey of Germantown and Rep. Harry Brooks of Knoxville, appears to have momentum. The measure sailed this week through its first committees in both chambers of the legislature

Here are answers to questions from some of our readers about the new proposal:

Who would be impacted?

The Kelsey-Brooks bill focuses only on students in Shelby County Schools. First priority would go to students who meet the federal qualification for free and reduced lunch, which means their family income is up to 185 percent above the federal poverty threshold, and who are also zoned to a school in the state’s bottom 5 percent. Other students attending Shelby County Schools could take any leftover vouchers. As of now, the program is capped at 5,000 students, and the state estimates it could cost the local district nearly $19 million a year.

When would it go into effect?

The pilot program would begin in the fall of 2018 and run through the 2022-23 school year, at which point it would be terminated, continued or expanded, depending on what the General Assembly decides.

What schools would take vouchers?

Catholic schools are the most eager. In Memphis, leaders of Jubilee Schools have signaled they would participate in a voucher program. Jubilee was established expressly to serve families from low-income families. In other states with voucher programs, students have overwhelmingly attended religious schools.

Beyond that, it’s not clear how many private schools are willing to accept vouchers. In 2014, a researcher at Vanderbilt University found that most Memphis private schools weren’t interested. For one thing, the proposed vouchers are worth only $7,000, and private schools wouldn’t be allowed to charge more. Many of the city’s best-known private schools — like Kelsey’s alma mater, Memphis University School — have much higher tuitions. For another, private schools are wary of opening themselves up to the regulation and accountability measures that accepting public funding could involve.

Last year, Chalkbeat polled Memphis private schools to see if they would accept vouchers. Here’s what they told us.

How have vouchers impacted student achievement in other states?

Until recently, research was mixed. But in recent months, three studies, including one from the pro-school choice Thomas B. Fordham Institute, have suggested that students who participated performed worse on tests than their peers who remained in public schools. A study of Louisiana showed that public elementary school students who started at the 50th percentile in math dropped to the 26th percentile in a single year after using a voucher to transfer to a private school.

Despite the new research, Tennessee lawmakers are optimistic that Memphis would see better results.

How would private schools be held accountable?

That part of the bill is in flux. Lawmakers want the Tennessee Comptroller’s Office of Research and Education Accountability to assess the program’s results by comparing students’ test scores, as well as their growth measured by TVAAS, which stands for the Tennessee Value Added Assessment System. That means that students in private schools would have to take either the state’s TNReady test, or another nationally normed assessment approved by the State Board of Education. It also means that participating private schools would have to have at least 10 students in each grade level, so that researchers would have enough data to make meaningful comparisons.

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

If a private school was below expectations according to TVAAS, they wouldn’t be allowed to enroll new students through the voucher program. After two years, they would be cut off from voucher money altogether.

Kelsey is wary of making private schools take the same tests as Tennessee public schools after last year’s testing malfunctions. “I’m a little reticent to put a disastrous test onto private schools,” he said Wednesday.

How is the Kelsey-Brooks bill different from last year’s voucher bill?

This bill only targets Memphis and offers far fewer vouchers — a cap of 5,000, instead of 20,000 under the proposal sponsored by Rep. Bill Dunn of Knoxville. Dunn’s 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. Like Kelsey’s bill, the proposal allows any students who reside in the district to take leftover vouchers, meaning potentially students zoned even to high-performing schools in Memphis, Nashville, Knoxville, Chattanooga and Jackson could cash vouchers out at a private school. Dunn’s bill, which is sponsored in the Senate by Todd Gardenhire, is also under consideration this year, though it has not yet been voted on.

What are the chances that the newest voucher bill becomes law?

Hard to say. Vouchers have swept through the Senate for six years, and this proposal is almost certain to pass that chamber as well. But the House has been trickier. Dunn’s voucher bill made it to the House floor last year — the farthest a voucher bill had ever gone in that chamber — before he pulled it at the last minute. He said he was just shy of the needed votes and that some lawmakers had been scared off after getting pushback from from their local school boards.

This year, lawmakers hope that targeting Memphis and putting an expiration date on the pilot will allay fears from people outside of Memphis. We’re doing everything possible to remove anyone’s objections to trying this,” said Rep. John DeBerry, one of the few Memphis caucus members who supports the measure.

Who supports it?

In addition to a broad swath of lawmakers — mainly Republicans, but also DeBerry and Sen. Reginald Tate, both Democrats from Memphis — vouchers have gotten support from educational advocacy organizations such as TennesseeCAN, the Tennessee Federation for Children (formerly led by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos), and Memphis-based Campaign for School Equity. Representatives from those groups argue that vouchers empower parents to make better decisions for their child’s education.

LaShundra Richmond, a Memphis parent who has worked for a school choice advocacy group in the city, testified Wednesday to the Senate Education Committee on behalf of Campaign for School Equity. She had pulled her daughter out of a charter school this year in favor of a private school. “It was no indictment of that (charter school), it was not a stab at the school system,” Richmond said. “As a parent, I am charged with ensuring her academic success. … I am burdened by how many families and parents do not have that option.”

And who opposes it?

Groups representing teachers, superintendents, school boards and school districts all oppose the bill, wary of the potential negative learning impact on student participants, as well as the loss of education funding to public schools.

The opposition isn’t just from Memphis, which would be most impacted. Former state Sen. Roy Herron, a lobbyist for a coalition of rural districts known as the Tennessee School Systems for Equity, told lawmakers on Tuesday that any voucher legislation opens the door to more expansive policies in the future.

“We know that what starts in Memphis won’t stay in Memphis,” Herron said.

What other questions do you have about school vouchers? Email us at [email protected]?


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]