A tale of two bills

One is not like the other: Memphis is the difference in competing school voucher bills

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
State Rep. Bill Dunn of Knoxville looks straight ahead after tabling his voucher bill in 2016.

Two school tuition voucher bills are poised to make their way through the Tennessee legislature this year, the key difference being that one applies only to Memphis.

And those geographic boundaries rankle many voucher opponents and advocates alike. 

A bill authored by Sen. Brian Kelsey, a Republican from the Memphis suburb of Germantown, limits its scope to districts with at least 30 schools in the bottom 5 percent. The only district that qualifies is Shelby County, home to the state’s largest public school system.

The bill sponsored by Rep. Bill Dunn, a Republican from Knoxville, applies to any district with schools in the bottom 5 percent. Right now, those include Shelby County, Metropolitan Nashville, Hamilton County, Knox County and Jackson-Madison public schools.

“Forty percent of all education legislation seems to be about Shelby County Schools,” said Rep. Roger Kane, who last year co-sponsored Dunn’s voucher bill. “That’s wrong.”

Rep. Antonio Parkinson, a Memphis Democrat, disagrees with Kane on vouchers, but agrees that the legislation shouldn’t target only Memphis.

“The fact that they singled Memphis out is honestly an insult,” he said of Kelsey’s bill. “There are schools and children that may not be performing to the extent that they should be in every county in Tennessee; in Knox County, Hamilton, Nashville and Shelby. … If you’re going to do something like (vouchers), be fair and do it statewide.”

Dunn’s proposal, filed on Wednesday, is nearly identical to the one that last year made it further than any voucher bill ever introduced in the House. The legislation originally came out of a task force spearheaded by Gov. Bill Haslam. Last year, Dunn pulled the bill before it came to a vote on the House floor, but only after it was amended so that Memphis would serve as the pilot for the program.

Dunn said Wednesday that it’s important that the bill isn’t limited to one district. “My bill would help more children,” he said.

Similarly, Kelsey’s bill does not limit vouchers to Memphis in perpetuity, but uses the city as an experiment.

Sen. Reginald Tate, a Memphis Democrat and Kelsey’s co-sponsor, said his home city isn’t being unfairly singled out.

“It’s not necessarily that I’m in support of (vouchers), but I don’t see a reason to block it. … I don’t even think we have enough (private school) seats for it to make much of a difference,” he said. “I know people say, ‘Hey, we’re the guinea pigs, we’re the freckle-faced child; you make us try everything…’ but I don’t think it’s going to be that detrimental at all. I’m not picking on Shelby County.”

Vouchers are taxpayer-backed scholarships that parents could use to send their kids to private school.

Proponents say vouchers drive competition, and that competition makes all schools better and increase student achievement. They argue that anything would be better than the current options for students who attend Tennessee’s lowest-performing schools.

Opponents say there’s no guarantee that a private school accepting a voucher would be of better quality than a public school, especially since private schools are less regulated.

Gearing up for Tennessee’s voucher fight? Here are eight stories to read.


School vouchers hit snag in Tennessee as sponsor announces he won’t advance bill

PHOTO: The Commercial Appeal
Sen. Brian Kelsey, a Republican from Germantown, has sponsored several voucher bills in the Tennessee General Assembly.

The push to allow some Tennesseans to use private-school vouchers has hit a roadblock that could stall voucher legislation for a fourth year.

Sen. Brian Kelsey said Monday that he won’t ask a Senate committee to take up his bill — which would pilot a program in Memphis — when the legislature reconvenes its two-year session in January.

“I listen to my community. Right now, there’s not enough parental support,” the Germantown Republican lawmaker told Chalkbeat after sharing the news with Shelby County’s legislative delegation.

Rep. Harry Brooks, who sponsors the proposal in the House, did not immediately return phone calls about whether he will seek a new Senate sponsor. Kelsey would not comment if he would support the legislation if another state senator picked up the mantle.

Kelsey’s retreat calls into question the future of the voucher legislation in Tennessee, home to a perennial tug-of-war over whether to allow parents to use public money to pay for private school tuition. It also comes as U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has focused national attention on the policy.

This year, the proposal reached as far as the Senate finance committee and a House finance subcommittee before Brooks asked to delay a vote until 2018. At the time, he cited the need to work out details about private school accountability, specifically for high school students.

Kelsey said Monday he would not withdraw the bill or his sponsorship, but also doesn’t plan to bring the measure to a vote in the finance committee, which would halt the proposal in its tracks unless a new sponsor comes aboard.

This week’s development signals that the momentum for vouchers may be shifting for now.

Nationally, recent studies show that achievement dropped, at least initially, for students using vouchers in Louisiana, Indiana, Ohio and Washington, D.C. And in Tennessee, one group that has lobbied annually for vouchers is taking a step back from the issue, according to its executive director.

“I can tell you that Campaign for School Equity will not be pursuing or supporting any voucher legislation this year. It’s a shift in focus for us …,” Mendell Grinter said, adding that the Memphis-based black advocacy group is switching emphasis to student discipline and other issues of more concern to its supporters.

Even so, DeVos urged Tennessee lawmakers to pass vouchers during her first visit to the state last month. “Too many students today … are stuck in schools that are not working for them,” she told reporters. (The U.S. Department of Education cannot mandate voucher programs, but could offer incentives to states to pass them.)

Vouchers have passed three times in Tennessee’s Senate, only to stall each time in the House. Proponents had thought that limiting vouchers to Memphis would garner the legislative support needed this year, but the Kelsey-Brooks bill didn’t sit well in the city that would be most impacted. Opposition swelled among county commissioners, local legislators, and numerous school boards across Greater Memphis.

During discussions Monday with Shelby County lawmakers, Bartlett Superintendent David Stephens said vouchers would be a blow to districts already unsteady from years of reform efforts.

“Any time we take dollars out of public schools, we’re hurting public schools,” Stephens told Chalkbeat later. “We don’t need to do anything to hurt or cut funding there. When we talk in Shelby County about school choice, we have the municipal districts, charter schools, the county school system. That’s choice.”

Rep. Antonio Parkinson, a Memphis Democrat, said opposition from the Bartlett district appeared to carry more weight with Kelsey than did Shelby County Schools, which has publically been on the record against the legislation from the start.

“Challenges (that Stephens) talked about were challenges we’ve been screaming about from SCS’ standpoint for years,” Parkinson said.

Rep. Bill Dunn, a Knoxville Republican who has championed vouchers for years, said he’ll be disappointed if a bill doesn’t come up for a vote in 2018. “The whole reason for vouchers is to give a chance to these kids who are doomed unless they get in a different educational environment,” he said.

Tennessee’s legislature reconvenes on Jan. 9.

Chalkbeat reporter Caroline Bauman contributed to this report.

She's here!

Betsy DeVos tours school during her first Tennessee visit as education chief

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos talks with students during a 2017 tour of career and technical education programs at Oakland High School in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.

In her first official stop in Tennessee as secretary of education, Betsy DeVos praised career and technical education at a traditional public school, but also put in a good word for vouchers in a state that has consistently eschewed them.

DeVos visited Oakland High School in Murfreesboro, a fast-growing university town south of Nashville, and spoke with students taking classes in health sciences, automotive technology and mechatronics.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich

She lauded the school for “addressing individual students’ needs and aptitudes and helping them to prepare for their adulthood very early on” — in partnership with regional industries that are heavy on healthcare and automobile production.

But even as she praised instruction happening at Oakland, DeVos encouraged Tennessee lawmakers to approve a voucher program. Vouchers would allow parents to use public funding to send their children to private schools, despite recent studies showing that student achievement dropped, at least initially, for students making that leap in Louisiana, Indiana, Ohio and Washington, D.C.

“I think empowering parents to make the right decision for their children is important, no matter what state and no matter what community,” she told reporters when asked about Tennessee’s perennial tug-of-war over vouchers. “We have far too many students today that are stuck in schools that are not working for them and parents that don’t have the opportunity to make a different decision.”

Since becoming the nation’s education chief in February under President Donald Trump, DeVos has been tasked mainly with overseeing the new federal education law that shifts most decision-making back to states. With her diminished authority, she is using her position as a bully pulpit to promote policies that she favors, including expanding school choices for families. She is a big proponent of charter and virtual schools and using vouchers or tax credits to go to private or church-run schools.

While Tennessee has more than a hundred charter schools and a few virtual schools, its legislature has consistently shied away from vouchers. Lawmakers will take up the matter again in January with a proposal that would pilot a program in Memphis, home to a large concentration of low-performing schools that local and state initiatives are attempting to turn around.

At least one longtime voucher proponent told Chalkbeat that the prognosis isn’t good for passage in 2018 in the House of Representatives, where the proposals have stalled each year.

“I would hope that the politicians would put the kids first, but kids don’t vote. Public school employees do, so I’m not as optimistic,” said Rep. Bill Dunn, a Knoxville Republican who has sponsored voucher legislation in the past.

One reason might be districts like Rutherford County Schools, where DeVos visited on Wednesday. Last spring, school board members there urged their representatives to oppose vouchers through a resolution that says vouchers “hurt the free public education system, divert limited state education dollars to private interests, and have been shown to hurt the academic progress of students.”

DeVos came to Tennessee in conjunction with the National Summit on Education Reform, which kicks off on Thursday in Nashville. The annual event is hosted by her friend Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida. DeVos will deliver a keynote address.

About 1,100 education leaders and influencers from across the nation are scheduled to attend the summit and — as has happened frequently when DeVos comes to a city  — several teachers unions are planning a protest against what they call her “anti-public education agenda.” DeVos was among the most controversial picks for Trump’s cabinet, in part because the Michigan billionaire came to the job with little experience with public schools.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
DeVos talks with health science students at Oakland.

At Oakland High School, the faculty, students and administrators who showed DeVos around said they hoped she came away from their campus with a greater appreciation for what goes on there.

“We’re public education, and we do it right,” said principal Bill Spurlock.

Brianna Bivins, a junior, added that she doubts a private school could offer the health sciences classes that she takes at Oakland. “It’s good for her to see this kind of class,” she said of DeVos. “It gives a good perspective of our public schools.”