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]?

Five questions

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

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?

<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.