A group of pastors affiliated with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) came to the State Capitol on Thursday to present a petition with 25,000 signatures supporting a voucher bill that would set aside state money for poor children to attend private schools.

“Parents with financial means have options, those with limited financial means do not,” wrote the Rev. Dwight Montgomery, president of the SCLC Memphis chapter and pastor of Annesdale Cherokee Baptist Church, in a letter urging other Tennessee pastors to support educational choice.

“An educational choice program … shifts power to low-income parents. [This bill], for the first time, will give parents of limited means the power to do what is best for their children,” Montgomery said.

Follow the status of education-related bills in the 109th Tennessee General Assembly.
Follow the status of education-related bills in the 109th Tennessee General Assembly.

If passed, the bill could provide about $8,000 annually per pupil for poor students zoned to a public school ranked academically in the state’s bottom 5 percent to allow them to attend private schools meeting state-approved criteria. The state would set aside $16.5 million for the program the first year and gradually increase the amount in subsequent years. 

The vast majority of the state’s lowest-performing “priority” schools are located in Memphis.

Along with the petition, a poll was released by the Tennessee Federation for Children showing that 59 percent of Tennessee voters support the legislation.

Critics say vouchers have not proven effective in raising student test scores in other states and that public money shouldn’t be spent on religiously affiliated schools.

Supporters say tax dollars already are spent on scholarships and loans for students to attend private colleges and that parents shouldn’t be forced to send their children to a subpar school just because of where they live and how much money they make.

Several dozen religiously affiliated schools in Memphis, namely the Jubilee Schools, stand to gain millions of dollars through enrollment increases under a voucher program.

At a rally last fall, SCLC leaders framed vouchers as a civil rights issue.

The voucher bill passed the Senate Education Committee earlier this month. A similar bill last year passed in the Senate but failed in the House.