election season

Memphis school board candidates speak out on what they want to change

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman

Fifteen people are vying for four seats on the Shelby County Schools board this year. That’s much higher stakes compared to two years ago when five seats were up for election with only one contested race.

The election is Thursday, Aug. 2 with early voting starting Friday, July 13. Below you can sort through each school board district race and see candidates’ answers to a survey Chalkbeat sent out last month. To find your district, check out the maps from Shelby County Schools.

To learn more about these candidates and meet them in person, be sure to attend our forum 6:00 to 8:30 p.m. Thursday, July 19 at BRIDGES.

Note: School board candidates Roderic Ford, Percy Hunter, and Alvin Crook did not respond to the survey questions. We have included some general information about each of those candidates.

game plan

After years of school voucher rejections, backers consider another approach in Tennessee

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
The State Capitol in Nashville is home to the Tennessee General Assembly.

The campaign to introduce school vouchers to Tennessee has come up short for so many years that supporters are looking closely at another voucher-like approach to give families more control over public funding for their children’s education.

Education savings accounts have gained traction in some other states and are viewed as an attractive alternative for Tennessee in the debate about parental choice.

And with the inauguration soon of a new governor who promised to give parents more education options for their kids, this approach would fit the bill — and even offer a longer menu of services than traditional vouchers would.

“I would like to help lead the charge,” said Rep. Bill Dunn, a Knoxville Republican and fierce voucher proponent, who this week was elected speaker pro tempore of Tennessee’s House of Representatives.

“Education freedom, if it’s done correctly, gives students opportunities to do better, and public schools rise to the occasion through competition. Everybody wins,” Dunn added.

Not so fast, say public school officials who view any kind of voucher program as a major step toward privatizing education.

“Outside interests pushing ‘school choice’ options have learned that when ideas like vouchers become toxic to the public, they can be repackaged as education savings accounts, which might be more palatable to lawmakers,” said Amy Frogge, a Nashville school board member who opposes vouchers.

Both approaches raise the same concerns, said Frogge, citing a drain of funding from public schools, increased student segregation, and a lack of accountability for students whose families choose that route.

Education savings accounts, or ESAs, allow parents to withdraw their children from public schools and receive a deposit of public funds into government-authorized accounts. The money could be used to cover everything from private school tuition and tutoring to homeschool materials and online learning programs.

A voucher is taxpayer money that’s restricted to paying for private school tuition and fees for eligible students.

For years, Tennessee lawmakers have tried to start a voucher program and came close in 2016 with legislation sponsored by Dunn. But an unlikely alliance of Democrats and rural Republicans have foiled every attempt.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
State Rep. Bill Dunn (center) looks straight ahead after tabling his voucher bill in 2016.

Dunn, who has since risen to the House’s No. 2 leadership position, thinks education savings accounts would be more appealing to rural legislators who see little local benefit in opening the door to vouchers in Tennessee.

“A voucher is dependent upon having a private school being available. But there’s more flexibility with an ESA and you could shop for a lot more educational services for your child no matter where you live,” he said, adding that a better educated workforce could lure more jobs to rural Tennessee.

A 2018 poll by the pro-voucher American Federation for Children found that voters are more open to voucher-like programs like education savings accounts  and “tax credit scholarships” than vouchers, even though all three would siphon off funding from public schools. That’s one reason that backers are avoiding the V-word and re-branding how they talk about “school choice.”

Leaders of the American Federation for Children say they wouldn’t be surprised to see legislation filed this year in Tennessee, whether for vouchers or education savings accounts.

“We’re supportive of both,” said state director Shaka Mitchell. “But because an ESA allows students’ education to be far more customized, I think it’s useful in some ways that a voucher isn’t.”


Do school vouchers work? Here’s what the research says


“School choice” advocates will have two powerful new allies in the governor’s office when Bill Lee is inaugurated on Jan. 19. The governor-elect has hired Tony Niknejad, former state director of the American Federation for Children, to be his policy director, while Brent Easley of TennesseeCAN, another pro-voucher group, is his legislative director.

But it’s uncertain whether Lee — a Williamson County businessman who won his first bid for office — will put his political muscle behind the divisive issue in his early months of governing, especially when he must develop his first proposed budget and a broader vision for his four-year administration.

PHOTO: Ned Jilton II/Kingsport Times-News
Bill Lee was elected Tennessee’s 50th governor in November and will take the oath of office on Jan. 19.

“There may be a lot of talk about vouchers or education savings accounts, but I don’t think it’s the right climate yet,” said Rep. Mark White of Memphis, who this week was named chairman of the House Education Committee.

One reason, he said, is accountability for recipients of education savings accounts and the services they choose.

“We’ve worked so hard making sure the public schools are accountable with testing that if we just give a parent money to go to a private school of their choice or to choose other services and we don’t have any accountability, then I would be against it,” White said. “If we’re talking about taxpayer dollars and we’re holding one group accountable, then we’ve got to hold everybody accountable.”

Tennessee already has one program that’s similar to education savings accounts. The state launched launched Individualized Education Accounts for students with certain disabilities in 2017, allowing families to receive up to $6,000 annually to pay for private educational services. This year, 137 students from 38 districts are participating, with 70 percent attending a private school and the rest homeschooled, according to the state’s most recent data.

“When we debated that limited-choice program, people got up and said it would be the end of the world and would destroy public education — but it hasn’t,” said Dunn.

Others point out that, although the state planned for more participants in the program, no one expected families to rush out of public schools. Anyone opting to use the accounts must waive their federal right to receive a “free and appropriate” public education. For students with disabilities, that usually costs far beyond the $6,000 a year allocated to participants.

One bill filed in the legislature’s first week seeks to expand the program to make more students eligible. Rep. Jay Reedy, a Republican from Erin, wants students who are already in private or home schools to be able to participate. Currently, families can apply only if their student is enrolled in public schools.

Rosters

Meet the Tennessee lawmakers who will shape education legislation this year

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Newly named committees for the 111th Tennessee General Assembly will soon begin reviewing legislative proposals.

Twenty-three legislators in Tennessee’s House of Representatives and another nine in the Senate will serve as the gatekeepers for hundreds of bills dealing with public education over the next two years.

The highly anticipated committee assignments were announced Thursday by House Speaker Glen Casada and Senate Speaker Randy McNally to close out the first week of the 111th General Assembly.

Sen. Dolores Gresham of Somerville will return as chairwoman of her chamber’s education committee, while Rep. Mark White of Memphis will lead a newly combined House panel.

Both Republican leaders are strong advocates of Tennessee’s score-driven accountability systems for students, teachers, schools, and districts. And with 24 years of legislative experience between them, their appointments are viewed as stabilizing forces as Tennessee transitions to a new administration under governor-elect Bill Lee and a large class of freshmen in the House.

The Senate lineup doesn’t look significantly different from the previous session, but the House panel is markedly changed in both membership and structure.

Casada consolidated two House committees that have handled education since 2015. He also named four subcommittees to manage the heavy flow of legislation related to K-12 and higher education, which last year numbered more than 400 bills.

“The purpose of the subcommittees will be to vet the bills from the beginning,” said White. “If a bill isn’t written well or it’s not a good idea, the subcommittee should get rid of it.”

With this year’s legislature under another Republican supermajority, the GOP dominates membership on all committees. For Senate education, Raumesh Akbari of Memphis is the only Democrat, while Democrats comprise only a fourth of the membership of the House committee.

Each legislator files preferences for committee assignments, but the speaker of each chamber makes the final call on membership and leadership.

Rep. Mark White

White’s elevation to chair the House panel was anticipated, since he was the only one of four education leaders in his chamber to return this year following the retirements of Harry Brooks and Roger Kane of Knoxville, and John Forgety of Athens. Last year, White chaired his chamber’s education subcommittee on administration and planning.

But the rise of Rep. David Byrd to chair a new subcommittee raised some eyebrows. A former teacher and principal, the Waynesboro Republican has been accused of sexual misconduct by three women when he was their high school basketball coach 30 years ago. Last fall, Casada defended Byrd, likening him to then-U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, who was also facing allegations of sexual assault from decades earlier. Byrd eventually sailed past his Democratic opponent to secure a third term in office.

The committees will get to work the week of Jan. 28, and you can learn about their schedules on the General Assembly’s website.

Newly named members and chairs are:

House Education Committee

  • Mark White, R-Memphis, chair
  • Kirk Haston, R-Lobelville, vice chair
  • Charlie Baum, R-Murfreesboro
  • David Byrd, R-Waynesboro, chair, Administration Subcommittee
  • Scott Cepicky, R-Colleoka
  • Mark Cochran, R-Englewood
  • Jim Coley, R-Bartlett, chair, Higher Education Subcommittee
  • John DeBerry Jr., D-Memphis
  • Vincent Dixie, D-Nashville
  • Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville
  • Jason Hodges, D-Clarksville
  • Chris Hurt, R-Halls
  • Tom Leatherwood, R-Arlington
  • Harold Love, D-Nashville
  • Debra Moody, R-Covington, chair, Curriculum, Testing and Innovation Subcommittee
  • Antonio Parkinson, D-Memphis
  • John Ragan, R-Oak Ridge, chair, K-12 Subcommittee
  • Iris Rudder, R-Winchester
  • Jerry Sexton, R-Bean Station
  • Kevin Vaughan, R-Collierville
  • Terri Lynn Weaver, R-Lancaster
  • Ryan Williams, R-Cookeville
  • John Mark Windle, D-Livingston

Senate Education Committe

  • Dolores Gresham, R-Somerville, chair
  • Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, first vice chair
  • Raumesh Akbari, D-Memphis, second vice chair
  • Mike Bell, R-Riceville
  • Rusty Crowe, R-Johnson City
  • Steven Dickerson, R-Nashville
  • Ferrell Haile, R-Gallatin
  • Joey Hensley, R-Hohenwald
  • Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol