Still Waiting

Trump mum about his school choice plan as he prepares to release his budget

President Donald Trump speaks Wednesday to a rally in Nashville.

The wait continues for details about President Donald Trump’s school choice plan.

While some reports said Trump would highlight school choice Wednesday at a rally in Nashville, he gave only brief billing to the topic at the conclusion of his speech. He offered no specifics on his plans for the nation’s schools, nor did he comment on choice legislation in Tennessee.

Instead, he repeated a promise he’s made before — and asked Congress to pay for.

“We will give our children the right to attend the school of their choice, one where they will be taught to love this country and its values,” he said. “… We will fight for the right of every American child to grow up in a safe neighborhood, attend a great school and to graduate with access to a high-paying job that they love doing.”

The president spent the bulk of his 40-minute speech criticizing a federal judge’s ruling only hours earlier to halt his revised travel ban aimed at refugees and travelers from six Muslim-majority nations. Trump also talked at length about his promise to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare.

The short shrift to education in Wednesday’s speech means Trump’s first budget proposal, set for release Thursday, is likely to be the first opportunity to understand his plans to turn his $20 billion school choice vision into reality. On the campaign trail, he promised to redirect money meant for educating students from low-income families to private school choice programs. He touted vouchers and tax credit scholarships, which also use taxpayer money toward private school options.

Until now, lawmakers have declined to create broad voucher programs in Tennessee, but proponents are optimistic that Trump’s endorsement of those policies will help push them into law this year.

Read more on school choice in Tennessee

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.