In the 1980s, Rep. John DeBerry (D-Memphis) was so dissatisfied with his daughter’s public school that he worked two jobs — more than 80 hours a week — so she could attend Hardin Academy, a private school in Memphis.

“It would have been nice if I could have gotten a little money from the state [to pay for her tuition],” he told fellow members of the House Administration and Planning subcommittee on Tuesday.

In an emotional appeal, he urged the panel to pass a bill allowing low-income students to receive private school vouchers to help parents like him in the future.

DeBerry’s wishes prevailed. The subcommittee voted 7-1 to advance the measure.

Legislation to enact a voucher system has failed previously in the House. House Majority Leader Gerald Ford believes the outcome will be different this year, however, and that vouchers will become available for the families of some Tennessee students.

Rep. Kevin Dunlap (D-Rock Island), a public school teacher, cast the only vote against the measure sponsored by Rep. Bill Dunn (R-Knoxville).

At the heart of Tuesday’s debate were questions about serving the good of the entire school system – or of individual students.

Local public school districts would lose up to $70 million under a voucher system as they lose students and state funding to private schools, according to the bill’s fiscal note.

“We get what we pay for,” Dunlap said, “and when we are taking $70 million away [from local school districts], I’m very very concerned about the future of public education, when we have made such gains and strides.”

Dunlap cited concerns about quality-control of private schools accepting vouchers. The proposed legislation does not require those schools to administer Tennessee standardized exams, which means the state would be comparing “apples and oranges” when tracking students in the voucher program and at traditional public schools.

DeBerry countered that vouchers would empower individual parents in his home district of Memphis. While state lawmakers argue about what’s best for the “system,” he said, thousands of children are stuck in failing schools.

“We do too much up here where we force stuff down the throats of  parents,” DeBerry said, his voice loud and wavering. “You have a poor parent here, trying to educate their child, and the system is beating them down.”

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.

In February, a nearly identical voucher bill passed the Senate Education Committee with little debate. But last week, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey told The Tennessean that the Senate won’t back that bill, which is sponsored by Sen. Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown), and instead will push for the bill introduced by Dunn and Sen. Todd Gardenhire (R-Chattanooga). Dunn’s bill has 23 co-sponsors in the House.

The proposed legislation would make vouchers available only to students zoned for the bottom 5 percent of Tennessee schools, almost all of which are in Memphis and Nashville. Like Kelsey’s proposal, the number of vouchers provided by the state would increase from 5,000 during the program’s first year to 20,000 two years later. The vouchers would provide up to $5,000 per student. Private schools accepting the vouchers could not charge additional tuition.

In other states, the results of voucher programs on student achievement have been mixed and sometimes negative.

Research from Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College suggests that few private schools are willing to take vouchers, although the Jubilee Schools network of Catholic schools in Memphis has made known its support of a voucher program.

Out-of-state organizations such as Americans for Prosperity, an advocacy organization funded by the billionaire Koch brothers, have pushed for vouchers in Tennessee. A voucher bill nearly became law last year, only to fail in the House Finance Committee.

Increased political organizing around vouchers is why Anne-Marie Farmer, a public school advocate and member of Tennesseans Reclaiming Educational Excellence, believes vouchers have more traction this year. Farmer said she’s concerned this law would be just the beginning, and that vouchers eventually would impact more than low-performing schools in Memphis and Nashville. “If vouchers pass – every year – the voucher proponents are going to come back to expand it, and expand it,” she said.

DeBerry told Chalkbeat after the vote that he doesn’t believe existing schools would be hurt by vouchers. “It’s going to be a select group of parents who would probably [send their children to private schools] anyway who are going to use those vouchers,” DeBerry said.

“Competition across the board raises all boats,” added Rep. Mark White (R-Memphis). “Everybody wins, and it’s all about the student.”

You can read more about the potential impact of vouchers on Shelby County Schools here.

In other legislative developments on Tuesday:

  • The teacher evaluation bill supported by Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration sailed through the House Education Administration and Planning Committee without debate, although some teachers are concerned about the legitimacy of using the state’s value-added system to measure test score growth between this year’s student assessment tool and a new one being developed for next year.
  • The extension of the Tennessee Virtual Schools Act passed the Administration and Planning subcommittee without objection, despite concerns about low academic scores at the Tennessee Virtual Academy, the state’s only full-day online school, which serves 1,200 students from kindergarten through the eighth grade.

Contact Grace Tatter at gtatter@chalkbeat.org.

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