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.

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.

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.