And then there was one

This year’s list of school voucher bills just got shorter in Tennessee

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Sen. Dolores Gresham (right) chairs the Senate Education Committee. On Wednesday, she tabled a $71 million voucher-like proposal for consideration next year.

Tennessee lawmakers advocating for vouchers and similar school-choice programs are now rallying behind a single bill.

One tuition voucher bill died Wednesday in committee due to a lack of votes, while a more expansive voucher-like measure was tabled until next year. And the sponsor of a third bill, which would expand another voucher-like program for special education students, pulled that proposal from consideration as well.

After the flurry of action in the Senate Education Committee, voucher advocates only have a proposed pilot program in Memphis to focus on, and that bill appears to have momentum. Sponsored by Sen. Brian Kelsey of Germantown and Rep. Harry Brooks of Knoxville, the measure passed a House education committee on Tuesday, and heads next to the House Government and Operations and Senate Finance committees.

Sen. Todd Gardenhire

The voucher bill that stalled Wednesday was similar to one that almost became law last year. Sponsored by Sen. Todd Gardenhire of Chattanooga and Rep. Bill Dunn of Knoxville, the proposal would have impacted students in districts with “priority schools” in the state’s bottom 5 percent, which includes Memphis, Nashville, Knoxville, Chattanooga and Jackson. It garnered only four of the five votes needed to pass, with four senators electing to pass, and one voting no.

Meanwhile, Sen. Dolores Gresham announced that she was tabling until next year her voucher-like proposal that could shift up to $71 million annually in public dollars toward private education services.

Gresham, a Republican from Somerville who chairs the panel, said she wants to flesh out her proposal based on what other states, including Nevada and Arkansas, are doing to fund their massive school-choice programs.  

“I need some time to look at what they’re doing, because that might be very helpful in the future for us to fund empowerment scholarships,” she said. “I’m very excited about what I see happening across the country.”

Gresham added that momentum is building at the national level, too, now that Betsy DeVos is U.S. secretary of education under President Donald Trump. DeVos, a billionaire philanthropist from Michigan, has made a career of advocating to give parents more flexibility on how to spend public education funding.

“I’m excited to see what the new secretary might bring to the table,” she said.

Gresham’s bill, co-sponsored by Rep. Roger Kane of Knoxville, would allow any parent to use up to $7,000 of public school funding toward private schools, tutoring or other educational services through Empowerment Scholarship Accounts. The proposal would be similar to a program that went into effect this year for special education students, but far more sweeping.

All of Tennessee’s 1 million public school students would be eligible to participate, though the program would be capped at 9,600.

The state’s new voucher-like program for special education students was created by the legislature last year, and Kelsey was seeking this year to expand it. But the bill faced opposition due to the potential cost to public schools, and he took it off notice on Wednesday.

College Access

In-state tuition bill for Tennessee’s undocumented immigrants clears first legislative hurdle

Undocumented students from across Tennessee pose Tuesday on the steps of the State Capitol with Gov. Bill Haslam, Rep. Mark White, and Sen. Todd Gardenhire. Brought to Nashville by the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, the students met with lawmakers and lobbied for a bill that would give them access to in-state college tuition, regardless of their immigration status. The students came from Chattanooga, Knoxville, Johnson City, Memphis, Murfreesboro, Nashville, and Sevierville. White and Gardenhire are the bill's sponsors.

Seventeen-year-old Nellely Garcia watched with elation Tuesday as a bill that would make it easier for her to attend college cleared its first hurdle in Tennessee’s legislature.

Nellely Garcia is a senior at Wooddale High School in Memphis and does not have legal status to receive in-state college tuition when she graduates.

An immigrant from Mexico who has lived in Memphis since she was a baby, Garcia traveled to Nashville during her spring break to support legislation that would provide in-state tuition to any student who attends a Tennessee high school for at least three years, regardless of their immigration status. The bill is aimed at students like Garcia, who has attended public school in Tennessee since kindergarten after her parents moved their family to Memphis without legal permission.

The measure passed 4-1 in the House Education Administration and Planning Subcommittee, with Rep. Dawn White, a Republican from Murfreesboro, casting the sole nay vote. It’s sponsored by Rep. Mark White, a Germantown Republican, and Sen. Todd Gardenhire, a Republican from Chattanooga, who have championed the proposal since 2015. That year, it passed in the Senate but fell one vote short of clearing the House.

“This bill will give us a fair chance to have a higher education and pursue our dreams,” said Garcia, a senior at Wooddale High School. “We have the ability to contribute. We want the opportunity to give back.”

But Garcia understands that the legislative process is a marathon and not a sprint. The measure must pass a full House committee and a Senate panel before heading to both chambers. Gov. Bill Haslam has said he would sign the bill if it reaches his desk.

“This is the first step. We’ve got several more committees to pass, but certainly this is an amazing start,” said Stephanie Teatro, a leader with the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, speaking to dozens of cheering high school students after Tuesday’s vote.

The bill is supported by most of the state’s public colleges and universities and, based on a 2017 poll by Vanderbilt University, about 72 percent of Tennesseans favor it, too.

Rep. Dawn White voted against the measure, arguing that Tennessee taxpayers should not give a tuition break to students who are in the country illegally.

Garcia has a different perspective. “I’ve lived here all my life. I may not have the papers, but I’m as American as my other classmates,” she told Chalkbeat.

But she likely won’t be able to afford college, she said, without in-state tuition, which cuts the cost of attending a public college or university by a third. Garcia hopes to study psychology or American history at the University of Memphis or Christian Brothers University.

“If I don’t go to college, my choices are really to work or get married. That’s not what I want to do right now,” she said. “I want to get in-state tuition like my other classmates.”


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.