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.”

Unstuck

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:

FOR

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

AGAINST

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.”

NEUTRAL

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]