counter-intuitive

The voucher bill tailor-made for Memphis? Many Memphians are offended by it.

Stephanie Love, a member of the Shelby County Board of Education, rallies against a school voucher bill during a Memphis radio broadcast on Sunday.

The strongest voices against Tennessee’s leading school voucher proposal this year are coming from the very community it’s supposed to help.

Public school advocates in Memphis say the bill that advanced last week in the state legislature is more about establishing a voucher toehold in Tennessee than helping children in their city’s lowest-performing schools.

They’re lobbying online and in person against the proposed program — with some planning an seven-hour round-trip bus ride to the State Capitol on Tuesday, when a House education committee is scheduled to vote on the bill.

“It’s going to expand. They just need to get it in the door as a pilot program and they’re using Memphis, the stepchild of Tennessee, as a means to get it in,” said Tikeila Rucker, president of United Education Association of Shelby County.

“It’s really like a slap in the face to pilot this bill in Memphis,” she added.

Tennessee is a battleground state in the voucher debate, and advocates have been emboldened under the pro-school choice administration of President Donald Trump and U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.

Their bill, which breezed through two legislative panels last week in Nashville, is to be debated next in the House Education Administration and Planning Committee. Sponsors have offered an alternative bill to the legislation that died on the House floor last year, and the goal is to get vouchers passed this time. That means singling out the city with one of the state’s highest poverty rates.

The proposal, which is sponsored by Rep. Harry Brooks of Knoxville and Sen. Brian Kelsey of Germantown, would offer tuition vouchers to students in Shelby County Schools beginning in the fall of 2018 and cap the program at 5,000 students. After five years, the initiative could be terminated, continued or expanded, based on an assessment by the state comptroller.


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


While several school boards across Tennessee have sent resolutions against any kind of voucher program to their elected officials, many lawmakers whose districts do not include Memphis have said they are open to piloting a program in the Bluff City.

But Stephanie Love, a member of the Shelby County Board of Education, said such a program would “dismantle public education” in her city.

“Never mind the work (Shelby County Schools) has done with the iZone; never mind the work that principals and our teachers and our parents have committed to doing in ensuring our students are raised to academic success. What this is saying basically is what has been said for years: the state views Shelby County Schools as a stepchild,” she said.


Tennessee’s voucher proposals target schools already struggling with low enrollment.


Love and Rucker participated Sunday in a district-sponsored radio program broadcast live on Facebook to highlight the proposal and discuss strategies for fighting it. Overnight, a Facebook group called “Memphians Against School Vouchers” went from 35 to 450 members.

The Facebook group was created by Feroza Freeland, a graduate of White Station High School in Memphis who now attends the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.

Shelby County Schools broadcast adviser John Best hosts a weekend radio discussion about the voucher bill.

“I think that’s really fundamentally wrong for them to be targeting Memphis like this. …That’s not really money we have to spare,” Freeland said of the potential $18 million loss of state funds for Shelby County Schools if the voucher measure passes.

Knowing the failures of previous statewide voucher proposals, Freeland said she is skeptical of the intentions behind the Memphis bill.

“Lawmakers from rural areas across the state were like, ‘No, we don’t want this,’” she said. “But now, they think if they just target it to Shelby County, all those lawmakers who voted no before are going to say, ‘Well, it doesn’t affect my county. I don’t care, I’ll vote yes,’ and I really think that’s a sneaky way to go about that.”

Five questions

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

PHOTO: TN.gov
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?

PHOTO: TN.gov
<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.