Voucher debate

Tennessee’s leading voucher bill is aimed at Memphis, where most elected officials are on the record against it

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
State Sen. Brian Kelsey of Germantown (left) confers with someone before the Senate Education Committee voted March 7 to advance his Memphis-specific voucher bill.

Tennessee’s Republican lawmakers often push for local control — but many appear to feel differently when it comes to school vouchers.

A bill with momentum in the legislature would pilot tuition vouchers in Shelby County, despite opposition from the county’s Board of Commissioners, most of its legislative delegation, and numerous school boards across Greater Memphis.

That includes Germantown, home to Sen. Brian Kelsey, who is sponsoring the bill.

The proposal, which is carried in the House by Rep. Harry Brooks of Knoxville, would launch the five-year pilot voucher program in the fall of 2018 beginning with 5,000 students. The bill breezed through two legislative panels earlier this month and also advanced this week in a full House education committee stacked with voucher supporters.

The fact that local school boards are opposing vouchers isn’t surprising. Shelby County Schools stands to lose $18 million in state funding if a program starts, and other area school systems could have to surrender students and money, too.

But 13 out of 17 state lawmakers in the county’s mostly Democratic caucus either have consistently voted against vouchers or come out against the Memphis-specific proposal.

There’s also been passionate outcry from the county’s Board of Commissioners, which is the local funding body for Shelby County Schools and its six suburban school systems. Last month, commissioners passed a legislative agenda that opposes vouchers.

“This will decimate our public schools,” Commissioner Terry Roland said during the meeting. “With the amount of money and the way they want to administer this, this could kill our Millington school district. … There’s no way in the world I could support this.”

Commissioner David Reaves called vouchers “a direct assault on the Shelby County Schools” and promised to take the matter to court if the bill passes.

“None of the school systems in this county — not one municipal district, not one Shelby County school district — is for this bill,” Reaves said.

Voucher proponents argue that it’s time to try vouchers in Tennessee, which has developed a solid reputation for school reform in recent years. And starting with Shelby County makes sense, they say, given its large number of “priority schools” in the state’s bottom 5 percent and a desire for choices by some parents and advocacy groups. The proposed program is for five years, and then would be dropped, extended or expanded depending on what the legislature decides. The bill calls for the Tennessee Comptroller’s Office of Research and Education Accountability to assess the program’s results by comparing students’ test scores and growth scores.

Read details about the voucher bill here.

Trying out the state’s new and controversial education strategies in Memphis isn’t new, and many community members are offended by that approach. The majority-black city has the state’s highest concentration of low-performing schools and a deep history of intergenerational poverty.

Tennessee’s Achievement School District made Memphis the hub of its turnaround work, for instance, after launching in 2012. The state-run district took over dozens of low-performing schools there and now oversees 31 in the city. Leaders of Shelby County Schools say the ASD’s presence costs the local district tens of millions of dollars in annual funding.

Some lawmakers elsewhere in the state have said they wouldn’t support a statewide voucher plan but are open to passing one aimed at Memphis. That riles some Memphians.

“Everything is pointing toward ‘Not in my backyard, do it in Shelby County!’” said Mike Kernell, a former state legislator who is now a school board member for Shelby County Schools. “Here we go again, trying something else when we’ve tried our best to show that more resources for kids in poverty actually works.”

Tony Thompson, a lobbyist for Shelby County Schools, argues that it’s wrong for lawmakers to target the Memphis area if their own elected officials are against vouchers. “Would it be OK for the Shelby County delegation to impose its role on the Knoxville delegation?” Thompson asked.

Reporters Grace Tatter and Laura Faith Kebede contributed to this report.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to show that the bill advanced March 21 in the House Education Administration and Planning Committee.


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 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.”