testing tussle

Tennessee voucher bill stalls as lawmakers strip TNReady testing requirement

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Rep. Harry Brooks, who is sponsoring a bill to pilot school vouchers in Memphis, answers questions from Rep. Mike Stewart during a House committee meeting on March 29.

A proposal to create a school voucher program in Memphis is losing some momentum while lawmakers tussle over the issue of testing.

After sailing through several committees in Tennessee’s General Assembly, the bill stalled Wednesday for a second straight week in the House Government and Operations Committee.

The panel voted narrowly to amend the bill so that voucher participants could take tests in their private schools that are different from what their counterparts take in public schools. But lawmakers stopped short of sending the amended bill to their finance committee after Rep. Mike Stewart, who opposes vouchers, moved to adjourn.

That leaves the measure at least three committee votes and two floor votes away from passage as the legislative session begins to wind down.

The Government and Operations Committee cannot kill a bill, only give it a positive, neutral or negative recommendation — so opponents’ only line of defense is to stall.

Whether voucher students should take the state’s standardized test, TNReady, has become a point of contention among lawmakers who support letting families use public money to pay for private tuition. Sponsors anxious to avoid past failures of voucher legislation have viewed the state testing requirement as a way to make this year’s bill more palatable to opponents.

But Wednesday’s vote to amend the bill upset some voucher supporters, including the sponsor, who believe that requiring voucher students to take TNReady is the best way to determine whether the pilot program is working. Others say private schools should be able to choose whether their students should take the Tennessee test or a national assessment.

Leaders from the Jubilee Catholic Schools, a network of nine Memphis schools that has been the most vocal in their desire to accept vouchers, have said they don’t mind administering Tennessee’s test.

The amendment was brought by Rep. Jeremy Faison, a Republican from Crosby in East Tennessee, who chairs the committee.

“I would say you’re turning that Jubilee school into a public school,” Faison said of the TNReady requirement.

But Rep. Harry Brooks, a Knoxville Republican and the bill’s sponsor, voiced concerns about stripping the requirement.

“Tennessee testing is the best way to compare apples to apples,” he said.

Sen. Brian Kelsey, the bill’s co-sponsor from Germantown, has expressed concerns that disagreement around testing would sink the bill. Kelsey said last week that he would prefer private schools have flexibility around testing, but that he also understands why some policymakers would only support the proposal if vouchers students are required to take public school tests.

“I hope that this testing issue is not being used … to sink the legislation this year,” he said. “I fear that may be the case.”

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]