A day after clearing its first hurdle in the House, a proposal to pilot a tuition voucher program in Memphis sailed Wednesday through its first test in the Senate.
The unanimous vote was expected in the Senate Education Committee, just as it was on Tuesday in a House subcommittee comprised mainly of voucher supporters. With five of nine Senate committee members co-sponsoring the bill, the issue was all but decided before discussion even began. Lobbyists from groups that oppose vouchers — including school systems, school boards and the superintendents association — didn’t even bother to testify before the Senate panel.
The Senate has perennially green-lighted a larger voucher program, only for the bill to fizzle in the House. Sponsor Sen. Brian Kelsey said that’s why he wants to try a more targeted approach aimed at Memphis.
Kelsey, a Republican from Germantown, attended a Memphis-area private school, and credited his education with “making me who I am today.”
The measure now goes to the Senate Finance Committee, while the House version heads to the House Administration and Planning Committee.
Members of the Senate Education Committee expressed eagerness in the coming weeks to pass other bills that would redirect public money to private schools, making clear their commitment to expanding school choice options during this legislative session. Lawmakers rolled bills to expand a voucher-like program for special education students, as well as establish a $71 million choice program for students in all districts, in order to tighten the proposals and increase their chances of passage.
Such policies are being hailed by President Donald Trump, who called on lawmakers last week to fund school choice programs for “disadvantaged youth,” and U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who has made a career of advocating to allow public education money to be spent for private or religious schools.
Proponents say vouchers drive competition, and that competition makes all schools better and increase student achievement. Opponents say they would divert funding from public schools and that 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.
Under the Memphis pilot proposal, lawmakers would decide whether to continue, expand or terminate vouchers after five years, depending on how successful those students are. Participation would be capped at 5,000 students, costing Shelby County Schools about $18 million a year.
It’s a much smaller program than the voucher bill that has dominated debate in recent years, and that is being sponsored again this year by Sen. Todd Gardenhire and Rep. Bill Dunn. That bill focuses on all districts with “priority schools” in the bottom 5 percent, and does not come with a potential expiration date. Gardenhire rolled the measure on Wednesday for a week so he can make some small amendments, like pushing back the start date to 2018.
The wider voucher bill made it all the way to the House floor last year before Dunn pulled it at the last minute, saying he was just short of the votes needed for passage. Lawmakers had heard from constituents concerned that vouchers would siphon off funding from public schools.
Lobbyists against a Memphis pilot program hope the same pushback will happen this year. They argued on Tuesday that a voucher program that begins in Memphis eventually would be expanded to other districts.