Here’s what you need to know about Tennessee’s latest voucher proposal

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
The Tennessee State Capitol stands in downtown Nashville.

After years of near misses, some Tennessee lawmakers are trying a more targeted approach to tuition vouchers with a proposal to pilot them exclusively in Memphis.

For more than five years, lawmakers have debated the merits of creating a voucher program that would allow parents of students in low-performing schools to use public funds to pay for private school tuition.

But the new Memphis-focused bill, sponsored by Sen. Brian Kelsey of Germantown and Rep. Harry Brooks of Knoxville, appears to have momentum. The measure sailed this week through its first committees in both chambers of the legislature

Here are answers to questions from some of our readers about the new proposal:

Who would be impacted?

The Kelsey-Brooks bill focuses only on students in Shelby County Schools. First priority would go to students who meet the federal qualification for free and reduced lunch, which means their family income is up to 185 percent above the federal poverty threshold, and who are also zoned to a school in the state’s bottom 5 percent. Other students attending Shelby County Schools could take any leftover vouchers. As of now, the program is capped at 5,000 students, and the state estimates it could cost the local district nearly $19 million a year.

When would it go into effect?

The pilot program would begin in the fall of 2018 and run through the 2022-23 school year, at which point it would be terminated, continued or expanded, depending on what the General Assembly decides.

What schools would take vouchers?

Catholic schools are the most eager. In Memphis, leaders of Jubilee Schools have signaled they would participate in a voucher program. Jubilee was established expressly to serve families from low-income families. In other states with voucher programs, students have overwhelmingly attended religious schools.

Beyond that, it’s not clear how many private schools are willing to accept vouchers. In 2014, a researcher at Vanderbilt University found that most Memphis private schools weren’t interested. For one thing, the proposed vouchers are worth only $7,000, and private schools wouldn’t be allowed to charge more. Many of the city’s best-known private schools — like Kelsey’s alma mater, Memphis University School — have much higher tuitions. For another, private schools are wary of opening themselves up to the regulation and accountability measures that accepting public funding could involve.

Last year, Chalkbeat polled Memphis private schools to see if they would accept vouchers. Here’s what they told us.

How have vouchers impacted student achievement in other states?

Until recently, research was mixed. But in recent months, three studies, including one from the pro-school choice Thomas B. Fordham Institute, have suggested that students who participated performed worse on tests than their peers who remained in public schools. A study of Louisiana showed that public elementary school students who started at the 50th percentile in math dropped to the 26th percentile in a single year after using a voucher to transfer to a private school.

Despite the new research, Tennessee lawmakers are optimistic that Memphis would see better results.

How would private schools be held accountable?

That part of the bill is in flux. Lawmakers want the Tennessee Comptroller’s Office of Research and Education Accountability to assess the program’s results by comparing students’ test scores, as well as their growth measured by TVAAS, which stands for the Tennessee Value Added Assessment System. That means that students in private schools would have to take either the state’s TNReady test, or another nationally normed assessment approved by the State Board of Education. It also means that participating private schools would have to have at least 10 students in each grade level, so that researchers would have enough data to make meaningful comparisons.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Sen. Brian Kelsey of Germantown sponsors the bill that lawmakers appear to be coalescing around.

If a private school was below expectations according to TVAAS, they wouldn’t be allowed to enroll new students through the voucher program. After two years, they would be cut off from voucher money altogether.

Kelsey is wary of making private schools take the same tests as Tennessee public schools after last year’s testing malfunctions. “I’m a little reticent to put a disastrous test onto private schools,” he said Wednesday.

How is the Kelsey-Brooks bill different from last year’s voucher bill?

This bill only targets Memphis and offers far fewer vouchers — a cap of 5,000, instead of 20,000 under the proposal sponsored by Rep. Bill Dunn of Knoxville. Dunn’s bill would target students zoned to the bottom 5 percent of schools in Tennessee, most of which are in Memphis and Nashville, with some in Hamilton, Knox and Madison counties. Like Kelsey’s bill, the proposal allows any students who reside in the district to take leftover vouchers, meaning potentially students zoned even to high-performing schools in Memphis, Nashville, Knoxville, Chattanooga and Jackson could cash vouchers out at a private school. Dunn’s bill, which is sponsored in the Senate by Todd Gardenhire, is also under consideration this year, though it has not yet been voted on.

What are the chances that the newest voucher bill becomes law?

Hard to say. Vouchers have swept through the Senate for six years, and this proposal is almost certain to pass that chamber as well. But the House has been trickier. Dunn’s voucher bill made it to the House floor last year — the farthest a voucher bill had ever gone in that chamber — before he pulled it at the last minute. He said he was just shy of the needed votes and that some lawmakers had been scared off after getting pushback from from their local school boards.

This year, lawmakers hope that targeting Memphis and putting an expiration date on the pilot will allay fears from people outside of Memphis. We’re doing everything possible to remove anyone’s objections to trying this,” said Rep. John DeBerry, one of the few Memphis caucus members who supports the measure.

Who supports it?

In addition to a broad swath of lawmakers — mainly Republicans, but also DeBerry and Sen. Reginald Tate, both Democrats from Memphis — vouchers have gotten support from educational advocacy organizations such as TennesseeCAN, the Tennessee Federation for Children (formerly led by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos), and Memphis-based Campaign for School Equity. Representatives from those groups argue that vouchers empower parents to make better decisions for their child’s education.

LaShundra Richmond, a Memphis parent who has worked for a school choice advocacy group in the city, testified Wednesday to the Senate Education Committee on behalf of Campaign for School Equity. She had pulled her daughter out of a charter school this year in favor of a private school. “It was no indictment of that (charter school), it was not a stab at the school system,” Richmond said. “As a parent, I am charged with ensuring her academic success. … I am burdened by how many families and parents do not have that option.”

And who opposes it?

Groups representing teachers, superintendents, school boards and school districts all oppose the bill, wary of the potential negative learning impact on student participants, as well as the loss of education funding to public schools.

The opposition isn’t just from Memphis, which would be most impacted. Former state Sen. Roy Herron, a lobbyist for a coalition of rural districts known as the Tennessee School Systems for Equity, told lawmakers on Tuesday that any voucher legislation opens the door to more expansive policies in the future.

“We know that what starts in Memphis won’t stay in Memphis,” Herron said.

What other questions do you have about school vouchers? Email us at [email protected]?

post mortem

Before voucher legislation comes back in 2018, Tennessee lawmakers want a plan to determine whether vouchers work

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Students eat lunch at the Oaks Academy Middle School, a private Christian school in Indiana that accepts taxpayer funded vouchers. All students at the private school must take Indiana's state tests. Whether Tennessee should have a similar requirement in its voucher proposal is up for debate.

While Tennessee lawmakers will go home this year without passing school vouchers into law, they’re not leaving the idea behind.

In the coming months, lawmakers who backed the proposal to start a five-year pilot program in Memphis will fine-tune it. One goal: clearing up questions about what kind of tests students need to take so lawmakers can determine if the program is “working.”

“The thing I want to have clarity on is … the language in regard to accountability,” said the House sponsor Harry Brooks, a Knoxville Republican, after he announced that he was pushing pause on vouchers for the year.

“How do we create accountability on the money that’s being spent in private schools? I’ve had a request from folks on different sides of the issue to say we need to look at that.”

Vouchers have never been an easy sell in Tennessee, with legislation falling short nearly every year since 2010. But it came close in 2016, with one of the bill’s sponsors estimating that he was only two votes shy of getting it passed. This year’s sponsors tweaked the bill to be a targeted pilot in hopes of making it more palatable to lawmakers on the fence.

But a lengthy battle over a new gas tax delayed the voucher vote, giving advocates less time to decide how to assess whether the vouchers help students — an important question because the proposal would create only a five-year pilot that lawmakers would expand depending on the results.

Many private schools are wary of state tests, which they say do not match up with their academic standards. And some lawmakers feared such a requirement would cause the standardization of private schools — something that appears to have happened in Indiana, where private schools that accept vouchers must test all students.

Brooks said that in his mind, state testing in grades 3-8 is a done deal — even though the bill was amended to remove the state testing requirement for all grades shortly before he pushed pause on the proposal until next year.

End-of-course testing for high school students is another story, he said. Private schools often have different graduation requirements and course offerings than public high schools, which come with different material to be tested. Brooks said he and other lawmakers would look into whether high schools that accept vouchers should be exempt from a testing requirement — and what, if anything, should replace tests to measure students’ success.

Tennessee’s voucher proponents think they can overcome those barriers before they pick up the voucher debate next year, hashing out a policy that appeals to private schools while appeasing lawmakers hungry for data.

“People want to see students go to these schools and do well,” said Mendell Grinter, the director for the pro-voucher advocacy group Campaign for School Equity. He said the bill will be helped by having hard conversations around testing in the offseason, rather than the crunch of the legislation session.

Other states have negotiated this terrain successfully. Two of the country’s largest and most recent programs, in Indiana and Louisiana, require private schools to publicly post state test scores. And the country’s oldest voucher programs, in Ohio and Wisconsin, have moved toward more accountability, both without losing private schools along the way.

Graphic includes voucher programs targeted at low-income students. It excludes programs for students with disabilities or rural students without public school access. Data: National Conference of State Legislatures. Graphic by: Sarah Glen/Chalkbeat
Graphic includes voucher programs targeted at low-income students. It excludes programs for students with disabilities or rural students without public school access. Data: National Conference of State Legislatures. Graphic by: Sarah Glen/Chalkbeat

“It’s hard at a time when traditional schools and charter schools are held accountable in such a visible way to make the argument that private schools getting public dollars shouldn’t have to,” said Michael Petrilli, president of the pro-voucher Thomas B. Fordham Institute. “I think we’re going to continue to see that in voucher programs.”

As states overhaul their accountability systems for public schools to include more measures than just test scores, a requirement under the new federal education law, lawmakers could consider doing the same for private schools in Tennessee.

“A pilot program with a rigorous evaluation makes a lot of sense,” said Douglas Harris, a researcher at the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans, who studied Louisiana’s voucher program and found that students using vouchers scored far below their public school peers on state tests. “Using multiple measures makes even more sense.”

But Harris cautioned against letting schools choose their own tests, something that schools in Florida are allowed to do as long as the tests are nationally normed. Some Tennessee voucher advocates, including Brian Kelsey, the Senate sponsor, have pointed to that model as offering accountability while preserving flexibility for private schools, but Harris said that it’s hard to draw meaningful conclusions from a smorgasbord of tests.

If Tennessee does figure out how to craft a pilot, a full-blown, statewide voucher program could easily follow. That’s what happened in Louisiana, which started with a pilot in New Orleans; Ohio, which started out with a smaller program in Cleveland; and Wisconsin, which started out with vouchers only in Milwaukee.

Brooks says Tennessee lawmakers wouldn’t allow vouchers statewide if they don’t succeed in Memphis — and that’s why it’s important to figure out how to measure outcomes.

“If it doesn’t work, then it answers the question,” he said. “It’s why it’s called a pilot.”

Another pause

Plan for school vouchers in Tennessee on hold again, despite national momentum

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Rep. Harry Brooks talks in his office about the decision to roll his voucher bill until next year. The Knoxville Republican is the House sponsor of a proposal to pilot vouchers in Memphis and Shelby County.

School voucher supporters thought that this was finally their year.

But despite national attention and initial momentum, vouchers have sputtered in Tennessee once again. Rep. Harry Brooks on Wednesday pushed his bill to next year, meaning that for the seventh year, vouchers will not pass the Tennessee Legislature.

It’s an anticlimactic ending after months of debate and hundreds of thousands of campaign dollars spent to boost legislation allowing public money to be spent on private school tuition.

Many advocates had thought that limiting vouchers to Memphis would give this year’s proposal the support needed to become law, winning over wary lawmakers from elsewhere in Tennessee. They also hoped to benefit from national attention to private school choice efforts. President Donald Trump and his education secretary, Betsy DeVos, have both used their platforms to advocate for vouchers and similar programs.

But in the end, disagreements over how private schools should be held accountable for academic results — as well as legislators’ exhaustion after passing a hotly debated gasoline tax — caused the measure to stall.

Brooks pledged to pick up the measure next year where he left it — in the House Finance subcommittee.

“We’re satisfied that we’ve moved it this far,” the Knoxville Republican said later. “We were able to accomplish more than we thought that we could (in the first year of the two-year session).”

Brooks said he’ll work in the coming months to nail down consensus specifically around high school testing, since private high schools often offer different courses than their public counterparts.

Two versions of amendments emerged this year to Brooks’ bill with Sen. Brian Kelsey — one that mandated all students take Tennessee’s state tests, and one that allowed private school students accepting vouchers to take other tests, so long as they are approved by the State Board of Education.

“I’ve had a request from folks on different sides of the issue to say we need to look at that,” Brooks said.

As word spread of a voucher pause, both advocates and opponents took the long view.

“I don’t want anybody to think the fight is over just because it’s been rolled until 2018,” said Stephanie Love, a board member with Shelby County Schools.

Love, who led busloads of Memphians to Nashville to voice opposition, said she’s already gearing up for next year’s debate — as was voucher supporter Mendell Grinter, director of the Memphis-based Campaign for School Equity.

“We’ll be prepared for next year,” said Grinter, whose organization supports expanding school choice, especially for students of color. “We don’t anticipate stopping or altering our course.”

Roy Herron, a former state senator who lobbies for Tennessee’s small school systems, was elated but stopped short of saying that vouchers are dead for another year.

“It’s a good day for public schools,” he said. “(But) there’s an enormous amount of money and highly capable lobbyists working very hard to pass this legislation. I have great respect for their ability and great concern about the amount of resources they bring on this issue.”

The House has been the harder route for advancing voucher legislation in Tennessee, where it’s passed the Senate three times. Last year, a proposal that would have permitted students in urban districts to use vouchers was pulled before coming to vote on the House floor.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated.