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VOL. 128 | NO. 15 | Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Kelsey Discusses School Vouchers Bill

By Bill Dries

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The bill to come in the Tennessee Legislature that permits school vouchers will be built around the more than $9,000 in state funding per school child, in the case of Memphis, and the ability of parents to use it to move their child to a private school.

State Sen. Brian Kelsey, who will sponsor the legislation backed by Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam as part of the administration’s legislative agenda, said the focus is on low-income families.

“You see that most of these students end up going to (private) schools that focus on low-income children,” Kelsey said of the experience in other states with such voucher programs. “They will probably get the vast majority of the students. But some of your more upper echelon private schools hopefully will participate as well and they can actually start to provide some real diversity in their student body.”

Kelsey and countywide school board member Chris Caldwell talked about vouchers on the WKNO-TV program “Behind The Headlines” hosted by Eric Barnes, publisher of The Daily News.

The program can be seen at The Daily News Online, www.memphisdailynews.com.

The legislation is not yet filed and some details remain to be worked out including what income level is the ceiling for “low income.”

Kelsey said it could be a maximum of between $42,000 and $68,000 a year for a family with four children. The lower end is the income threshold for the free and reduced lunch program. The higher end is 300 percent of the federal poverty level.

Kelsey outlined a voucher proposal that would make the state funding the maximum amount a private school could charge that student in tuition, although Kelsey said it might allow for a nominal fee of perhaps $50 per semester or month that some private schools charge.

“It is important, some of these schools feel in their mission statement, to have some sort of buy-in from the parents,” he said. “I don’t have a problem with that nominal figure.”

If a private school’s tuition is less than the maximum amount of state funding per student, what is left over goes back to the public school district.

The bill would not include a voucher component for parents of special education students.

“Any concerns I would have is what happens with a lot of legislation, which is good intentions, unintended consequences,” Caldwell said. “To the extent that we can mitigate any negative consequences to the kids in public education – that’s my main concern.”

Kelsey said the result is conventional public schools become better because of the competition, which Memphis City Schools are already feeling with more charter schools than any other part of the state and starting this school year, the addition of six low-performing Memphis City Schools in the state-run Achievement School District.

“You are introducing competition into this equation,” Kelsey said. “Now these public schools have to compete in order to receive students from their parents. They have to provide a better product.”

Kelsey agrees the private schools participating should be required to have some kind of year-end student achievement test approved by the state.

Caldwell’s point is that in order to compare student performance to conventional public schools, it should be the same test across both kinds of schools, which at present is the TCAP – Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program – test.

“To me, it’s absolutely critical that it be the exact same test because the scores don’t always extrapolate equally or exactly,” he said.

Kelsey said even if the same end of the year test is used, it likely won’t be TCAP because it is nearing the end of its run as Tennessee steps up to “common core” standards being used across most of the 50 states.

“In the first few years, you are only going to see a 1 or 2 percent participation rate among eligible students,” he predicted, based on voucher laws in other states. “Even in a fully robust program that is 10 or 20 years old, you are still going to see probably only 15 percent at the most … who are eligible who are participating.”

But Caldwell looks to the New Orleans school district’s example where he said the emphasis is on a school system that is more of a platform for school options for parents.

“Obviously here it has become that,” he said. “We have to look at the way education is delivered, the skill set we are trying to train these kids for.”

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