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.

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.

Close vote

Tennessee House committee denies in-state tuition to 13,000 immigrant students

PHOTO: Marcus Villa/Latino Memphis
Immigrant students display their career aspirations during a visit to the State Capitol in March to support a bill that would extend in-state tuition to them. The proposal was voted down by a House committee on Tuesday.

A proposal to ease the pathway to college for about 13,000 Tennessee students died by a single vote in a House education committee on Tuesday, as young people who would have benefited looked on.

For the third year, Rep. Mark White of Memphis had sponsored a bill that would grant in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants, arguing that expanded education access would be a boon for all Tennesseans.

But opponents shot down the measure 7-6 after hearing discussion mostly in favor of it. Rep. Dawn White, a Murfreesboro Republican, was the only lawmaker to speak against the bill. She argued that the policy would make Tennessee a magnet for illegal immigration.

About a dozen immigrant students had crammed into a committee room at the State Capitol in Nashville to witness the vote. Many were moved to tears by the outcome. The panel’s decision means Tennessee students who are in the country illegally must pay two to three times higher than their counterparts who pay in-state tuition to attend a public college. 

The scene was reminiscent of 2015, when a similar bill made it all the way to the House floor, only to fail by one vote because a Democratic supporter was absent.

This year, the measure had passed the Senate Education Committee and had the endorsement of Gov. Bill Haslam and the state’s largest college system, which stood to enjoy millions of dollars in increased revenue if it passed.

White wants Tennessee to join 20 states that allow undocumented immigrants to have in-state tuition. He argued that his proposal would help set the life trajectories of thousands of students, as well as their future children who will be citizens of Tennessee and the U.S.

“Most of these young people come from modest means. To pay $28,000 a year is out of the question,” he said. “I believe that it’s a basic conservative argument that if a person is willing to get up every morning, go to work, go to school, and better their life — that is what we have been about as a party all of my life.”

PHOTO: Marcus Villa/Latino Memphis
The vote means Tennessee students who are in the country illegally must pay two to three times higher than their counterparts who pay in-state tuition to public college.

Karla Meza, a recent high school graduate from Knox County, shared her story in hopes of swaying lawmakers on the fence. While most of her classmates at Powell High School could earn an associate’s degree for free through the Tennessee Promise, she pays nearly $10,000 a semester, or $697 per credit hour. Six credits short of an associate’s degree, Meza aspires to attend law school at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.

“We’re all here today to better our future, better our state, better our families,” she said.

Rep. Johnnie Turner, a Democrat from Memphis who is black, said Meza’s struggle reminded her of her own experience as a young woman of being barred from attending many Tennessee schools because of her race.

Expanding college access has been a top priority in the legislature in recent years, and Turner said the bill was in the spirit of Drive to 55, a 2014 state initiative to boost the percentage of Tennesseans with college degrees to 55 percent.

“The Drive to 55 didn’t say anywhere that we were going to discriminate against anybody,”she said. “Drive to 55 is for African-Americans, for Caucasians, for Hispanics, for all of the ethnic groups that make our state what it is.”

Arguing against the bill, Dawn White cited Georgia, which not only bars undocumented immigrants from receiving in-state tuition, but forbids them from enrolling in many state universities altogether. “Overcrowding is going happen,” she said. “We’ve thought long and hard about this, but you know, right is right, and wrong is wrong, and I cannot pass the burden onto taxpayers of Tennessee.”

In fact, the 20 states that already grant in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants have not seen noticeable upticks in illegal immigration. And Georgia has one of the highest undocumented populations in the nation.

Mark White acknowledged the current political climate, in which President Donald Trump campaigned to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border to stem immigration. But he said his bill is about education, not immigration.

“If I didn’t believe this was the right thing to do, I would not put our committee through this, because it’s hard. With national politics, it’s hard. But we’ve got these young people who say, ‘I just want to have a chance,’” he said.

Meza said she was “kind of in shock” following Tuesday’s vote but still hopes to attend law school in Tennessee.

“It’s disappointing,” she said. “The fact is, we’ve been here, we graduated from Tennessee high schools, and we do pay money to the state.

PHOTO: Marcus Villa/Latino Memphis
Immigrant students supporting the bill pose with Gov. Bill Haslam and bill sponsors Rep. Mark White and Sen. Todd Gardenhire during a visit to the State Capitol in March.