Nicole Gates was at her wit’s end with her nine-year-old twin daughters’ public education. Their reading skills had suffered, their classes were overcrowded and teachers were apathetic, she said. So the single mother scrounged up $4,500 and this year they’re attending St. John’s, a Memphis-based private school.

On Tuesday night, she joined about 350 parents, activists and political leaders at Greater Mt. Moriah Baptist Church to advocate for legislation that stands to give Gates and parents like her government-backed scholarships known as vouchers to attend private schools. They say they’ve already paid that money, around $9,000, in sales and property taxes, and they should get it back in the form of a voucher to spend on schooling that best suits their children.

Tuesday’s rally featured social justice poetry, rousing gospel music, a call to the altar and fiery speeches from former Memphis City Schools board member Pastor Kenneth T. Whalum Jr. and former Memphis schools superintendent and mayor Mayor Willie Herenton. Both Whalum and Herenton were credited Tuesday with building strong schools using some of the earliest versions of school choice — magnets and intra-district transfers — only to be later “crucified” by opponents.

“Public schools for too long had a monopoly and children of lower income status didn’t have the option of going to a private school,” Herenton said to shouts of amen from the audience. “Every parent deserves the right and the opportunity to have choices in the educational market place. I’m an advocate of public schools, a strong advocate, but I’m a stronger advocate for options and choices for parents.”

Voucher activists are largely focusing their organizing efforts in Memphis this year, where any proposed voucher bill in the 2015 legislative session would likely have a disproportionate impact. If several legislators have their way, vouchers would be given to low-income students at the state’s lowest-performing schools, the majority of which are clustered in Memphis.

Several Catholic, Christian and Muslim private schools in Memphis that already serve low-income students stand to gain millions with vouchers if they can fill their empty seats. Many of those schools’ leaders were there Tuesday to tout their academic successes using a model that includes spiritual teachings, corporal punishment, and small class sizes.

Opponents of vouchers point to several studies that show students with vouchers perform no better at private schools than at public schools (they sometimes perform worse), that public dollars should not be used for religious indoctrination and that vouchers take money from already cash-strapped public schools.

Tuesday’s event was sponsored by the American Federation for Children and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), a civil rights organization once lead by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In 2010, the two organizations galvanized thousands of black parents in Florida to push through voucher legislation that now provides $357.8 million in scholarships that fund about 69,000 students’ private school educations.  The program is currently being challenged in court by Florida’s NAACP branch, the teachers’ union, and PTA.

The SCLC and the American Federation for Children want to bring those same tactics to Tennessee, another Republican-dominated state where voucher legislation has a strong chance of passing.  They held a rally at the capitol this January that 1,200 people attended to help push through voucher legislation that would have made vouchers available to students zoned to the bottom 5 percent of schools in Tennessee.

The voucher bill ultimately failed.

“This year, we decided we wanted to organize people in Memphis on their own turf instead of taking them to Nashville,” said Carra Powell, a lobbyist with the American Federation for Children, a national advocacy organization that advocates for school choice, particularly vouchers. in low-income communities.

Powell recently started hosting a weekly 30-minute radio program on WLOK to discuss school choice, holding regular community and government meetings with education advocates and holding several rallies here in Memphis.

“We’re thinking outside the box this year,” she said.

Nicole Gates and her daughters Brooklyn and Bheanna who attend St. John's catholic school.
Nicole Gates and her daughters Brooklyn and Bheanna who attend St. John’s Catholic School.

On Tuesday, speakers cited failing traditional public schools and the threat of a state takeover as reasons for expanded school choice. They also pointed to Memphis City Schools’ 2011 charter surrender which sparked a historic merger between suburban and city schools and a subsequent municipality split as evidence that the government has failed black children.

“We recognize that the children have to be educated, trained, enriched, and nurtured,” said Dwight Montgomery, a local minister and the president of Memphis’ SCLC chapter.

Gates’ daughters, Brooklyn and Bheanna, are being tutored this year and their reading scores have improved at St. John’s. But the price tag isn’t getting cheaper.  She’s had to pay for field trips, school supplies and “just about everything else you can think of.”

“I’ll be glad when this (voucher legislation) passes,” she said.  Her other daughter, Yolanda, attends a charter school because she couldn’t afford private school for her. “They need to quit playing around.  This couldn’t come soon enough.”