Voucher debate

Tennessee’s leading voucher bill is aimed at Memphis, where most elected officials are on the record against it

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
State Sen. Brian Kelsey of Germantown (left) confers with someone before the Senate Education Committee voted March 7 to advance his Memphis-specific voucher bill.

Tennessee’s Republican lawmakers often push for local control — but many appear to feel differently when it comes to school vouchers.

A bill with momentum in the legislature would pilot tuition vouchers in Shelby County, despite opposition from the county’s Board of Commissioners, most of its legislative delegation, and numerous school boards across Greater Memphis.

That includes Germantown, home to Sen. Brian Kelsey, who is sponsoring the bill.

The proposal, which is carried in the House by Rep. Harry Brooks of Knoxville, would launch the five-year pilot voucher program in the fall of 2018 beginning with 5,000 students. The bill breezed through two legislative panels earlier this month and also advanced this week in a full House education committee stacked with voucher supporters.

The fact that local school boards are opposing vouchers isn’t surprising. Shelby County Schools stands to lose $18 million in state funding if a program starts, and other area school systems could have to surrender students and money, too.

But 13 out of 17 state lawmakers in the county’s mostly Democratic caucus either have consistently voted against vouchers or come out against the Memphis-specific proposal.

There’s also been passionate outcry from the county’s Board of Commissioners, which is the local funding body for Shelby County Schools and its six suburban school systems. Last month, commissioners passed a legislative agenda that opposes vouchers.

“This will decimate our public schools,” Commissioner Terry Roland said during the meeting. “With the amount of money and the way they want to administer this, this could kill our Millington school district. … There’s no way in the world I could support this.”

Commissioner David Reaves called vouchers “a direct assault on the Shelby County Schools” and promised to take the matter to court if the bill passes.

“None of the school systems in this county — not one municipal district, not one Shelby County school district — is for this bill,” Reaves said.

Voucher proponents argue that it’s time to try vouchers in Tennessee, which has developed a solid reputation for school reform in recent years. And starting with Shelby County makes sense, they say, given its large number of “priority schools” in the state’s bottom 5 percent and a desire for choices by some parents and advocacy groups. The proposed program is for five years, and then would be dropped, extended or expanded depending on what the legislature decides. The bill calls for the Tennessee Comptroller’s Office of Research and Education Accountability to assess the program’s results by comparing students’ test scores and growth scores.

Read details about the voucher bill here.

Trying out the state’s new and controversial education strategies in Memphis isn’t new, and many community members are offended by that approach. The majority-black city has the state’s highest concentration of low-performing schools and a deep history of intergenerational poverty.

Tennessee’s Achievement School District made Memphis the hub of its turnaround work, for instance, after launching in 2012. The state-run district took over dozens of low-performing schools there and now oversees 31 in the city. Leaders of Shelby County Schools say the ASD’s presence costs the local district tens of millions of dollars in annual funding.

Some lawmakers elsewhere in the state have said they wouldn’t support a statewide voucher plan but are open to passing one aimed at Memphis. That riles some Memphians.

“Everything is pointing toward ‘Not in my backyard, do it in Shelby County!’” said Mike Kernell, a former state legislator who is now a school board member for Shelby County Schools. “Here we go again, trying something else when we’ve tried our best to show that more resources for kids in poverty actually works.”

Tony Thompson, a lobbyist for Shelby County Schools, argues that it’s wrong for lawmakers to target the Memphis area if their own elected officials are against vouchers. “Would it be OK for the Shelby County delegation to impose its role on the Knoxville delegation?” Thompson asked.

Reporters Grace Tatter and Laura Faith Kebede contributed to this report.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to show that the bill advanced March 21 in the House Education Administration and Planning Committee.

The Homestretch

It’s past the halfway point at the Tennessee legislature. Here are proposals that still could change the state’s schools.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Though behind the Senate, the Tennessee House of Representatives is wrapping up committees as this year's session nears conclusion.

Only time will tell which bills passed by the Tennessee legislature will end up altering the lives of the state’s students and teachers.

Sometimes, like in the case of a bill requiring more recess last year, the impact is accidental, and lawmakers have to rush back to undo what they did the year before. And other times, bills end up barely making ripples, like a 2015 law that created a voucher-like program with special education students — that as of now, has only 35 participants.

After nearly three months of meetings, less than half of the more than 150 separate education proposals originally filed with the Tennessee General Assembly are still standing. They touch on issues ranging from school discipline to the Achievement School District.

And 10 measures have already passed both chambers. Of those, four have received Gov. Bill Haslam’s signature, making them law.

Here are some of the topics we’ve been watching, and where they stand.

School vouchers still face cost questions

The biggest decision legislators will likely face in the next few weeks is whether to widen the door for school vouchers by creating a Memphis pilot program. The committees in charge of keeping state spending in check still have to approve the program before it’s considered by the full House and Senate, and opponents won’t let the proposal through without a fight. The proposal would cost the state $300,000 a year — and potentially up to $18 million a year for Shelby County Schools and the Achievement School District, whose students would be the only ones eligible to use the public funds used on them to pay private school tuition. Still, more expensive voucher programs have made it through the finance committees in years past, and limiting the program to Memphis has also limited the overall cost.

A bill to expand Tennessee’s special education voucher program is also still alive. The proposal from Rep. Roger Kane, a Republican from Knoxville, and Sen. Dolores Gresham, a Somerville Republican, also awaits votes in the House Finance committees. The fiscal review committee has not yet posted the potential cost to the state.

The state is changing its approach to low-performing schools

A bill to change the way the state intervenes in low-performing schools has already passed both chambers, and the governor’s signature on it is a foregone conclusion. The proposal from the Tennessee Department of Education came out of its plan to comply with the new federal education law, known as the Every Student Succeeds Act, and significantly curbs the authority of the Achievement School District, the state’s turnaround district.

The weight of test scores in teacher evaluations is (temporarily) going down (again)

Due to the rockier-than-expected transition to Tennessee’s new state test, TNReady, the Department of Education went to lawmakers with another proposal to temporarily tweak how much students’ improvement on standardized tests counts in teacher evaluations. Under the measure, which has already passed both chambers, student growth from TNReady would count for only 10 percent of teachers’ evaluation scores this year and 20 percent next year. That’s compared to the 35 to 50 percent, depending on the subject, that test scores counted in 2014-15 before the state switched to its more rigorous test.

Lawmakers are trying to figure out how often kids should be playing at school

Haslam has signed a law that rolls back a year-old recess requirement for multiple sessions of “unstructured” play a day. Now Tennessee teachers will have weekly requirements, instead of daily ones: 130 minutes of physical activity per week for elementary schools, and 90 minutes for middle and high schools. Meanwhile, a bill to require elementary school students have physical education instruction at least twice a week still awaits votes in finance committees.

The state wants to strike a compromise between school districts and charter schools

The fight over Haslam’s proposed gas tax has continually delayed the House Finance Committee’s vote on the High-Quality Charter Act, a wide-ranging bill written by the State Department of Education in an attempt to address the often rocky relationships between the state’s 105 charter schools and the districts that oversee them. It’s also almost through the Senate, where it’s awaiting placement on the calendar. 

Are schools about to get a $250 million bonus from the state?

A bill to increase school spending by $250 million sounds almost outlandish, but Rep. Craig Fitzhugh and Sen. Jeff Yarbro, both Democrats, are receiving a surprising amount of traction for their K-12 Block Grant Act, which reallocates excess tax revenue to the state’s public schools. The money wouldn’t be able to cover salaries or other recurring expenditures. Instead, it would go to the extra school improvement projects that the state’s education funding formula, called the Basic Education Program, doesn’t cover. The bill awaits a vote in the House and Senate finance committees. It doesn’t yet have Haslam’s support, but Fitzhugh says he’s in talks with the governor.


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.