Busloads of Memphis teachers, parents and students traveled to the State Capitol Tuesday to voice their opposition to tuition vouchers. Instead, they heard a debate about whether districts should excuse students from school-sponsored sporting events held on Sunday.

The prolonged discussion bumped the voucher bill to next week’s agenda for the House Education Administration and Planning Committee. That means fewer Memphians will be able to attend the debate about a proposal meant exclusively for their students. This week is spring break for Shelby County Schools, allowing Memphians to make the seven-hour round trip drive to Nashville.

Stephanie Love, who serves on the Shelby County Board of Education, said she hopes concerned community members will rally others to call and email representatives, even if they can’t attend the committee meeting.

“We don’t know if they have all the votes. I want (lawmakers) to understand … this will put a burden on an already burdened city,” Love said, referring to the city’s challenges with enrollment and funding in schools.

Sponsors of voucher legislation say the program would give parents options for children who are attending “failing” schools. The leading voucher bill this year would pilot them in Memphis, which has the state’s highest concentration of low-performing schools.

But parents with Shelby County Schools traveled to Nashville tell lawmakers about existing choices in Memphis, like the district’s 45 optional schools, which provide theme-based learning to fit the needs of individual students.

Del Sulemani had planned to testify about the experience of her two daughters, who attended Catholic school before transferring to John P. Freeman Optional School. Her oldest daughter graduated from Central High School, and her youngest is a senior at Martin Luther King Jr. College Preparatory High School, a charter school in the state-run Achievement School District.

She said she was glad her family made the switch to public schools.

“I think parents have to understand when you put your child in private school, it’s their way or the highway,” she said. “Public schools have to address your concerns.”

In addition to the busload from Memphis, 150 teachers and 40 parents from across the state were at Capitol Hill through an event organized by the Tennessee Education Association. Sporting “no vouchers” stickers, they filled the committee room and overflowed into the hallway, highlighting passionate opposition to a proposal to allow public funds be spent on private schools.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Harry Brooks of Knoxville and Sen. Brian Kelsey of Germantown, passed last week in the Senate Education Committee.


Here’s what you need to know about the bill.