Another pause

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

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Rep. Harry Brooks, the House sponsor of a proposal to pilot vouchers in Memphis, says he won't bring the bill back in 2018.

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.

changeup

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.”