Kelsey’s New Private School Voucher Plan Looks More Like Haslam’s

By Sam Stockard

Momentum is building this session for voucher legislation that would allow state dollars to follow students from struggling public schools to private and religious institutions.

But it is hardly etched in stone.

A bill moving in the General Assembly still faces hurdles in the House of Representatives and through the Tennessee Education Association. Meanwhile, it’s not clear if Gov. Bill Haslam supports it after his voucher bill failed the last two years.

Republican Sen. Brian Kelsey, whose call for statewide vouchers clashed with the governor’s limited plan, steered a voucher bill through the Senate Education Committee recently.

KELSEY

“We amended it to track the governor’s bill from last year,” Kelsey said. “We’re hoping the governor will write a letter to House and Senate Finance committees that he will fund his bill from last year.”

The Germantown Republican says the legislation is expected to cost $185,000 – a “tiny amount of money” – for the Department of Education to administer the program.

The bill’s language, Kelsey explains, copies the governor’s 2014 legislation and does not allow private schools to charge tuition beyond the scholarship amount for students, which would be around $6,500 each.

Kelsey sent his bill to the governor’s office for review, but Haslam isn’t saying much about it.

“The governor proposed legislation the past two years to offer opportunity scholarships to low-income students in the lowest-performing schools and still thinks that’s the best approach,” his spokesman, David Smith, said.

TEA spokesman calls voucher ‘huge waste’

The Tennessee Education Association worked to defeat voucher legislation when it was turned back in 2014, spokesman Jim Wrye said, and continues to do so.

Wrye says the bill contains no language on accountability, and that private school students do not take the same tests and do not have to meet the same requirements as public school students.

“I believe we need to get every bit of education we can for our taxpayer dollars, and vouchers are just going to be a huge waste,” Wrye said.

Haslam’s 2014 proposal would have offered private-school vouchers to low-income students in more than 80 low-performing schools, the worst 5 percent, most of them in Memphis.

The voucher bill failed in the House Finance Committee last year, in part because of the sponsor’s request to cover schools in the bottom 10 percent statewide. Some representatives couldn’t grasp how it would benefit their districts, either, according to Rep. Glen Casada, who chairs the House Republican caucus.

Yet Casada now says, “I think it has a good chance of passing this year in the House. I think they’re getting comfortable with it.”

Casada, a Republican from Franklin, says vouchers would help education overall in Tennessee.

Shifting government funds to private schools doesn’t bother Casada, either: He contends the money comes from individual Tennesseans, not the government.

“I should control that tax money when it comes to educating my children,” Casada said.

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, who would like to see the Legislature put the issue to rest this session, said he has gone further all along than Haslam in supporting vouchers. He believes the market will determine the outcome.

“If we pass a statewide bill, there won’t be any (vouchers) in northeast Tennessee, just like there aren’t any charter schools in northeast Tennessee,” Ramsey said. “They go where people aren’t satisfied with their public schools and there’s a need. That’s always been my selling point.”

Legislators such as state Rep. Dawn White, a former Murfreesboro City Schools teacher, take a similar view, noting if voucher legislation becomes law it will affect schools in Memphis, not in Murfreesboro or Rutherford County.

“There are some parts of the state that may need a voucher program. We need to look at all parts of the state,” White said, addressing members of the Rutherford Education Association.

REA president Emily Mitchell, a David Youree Elementary School teacher, opposes such a move and said if the Legislature approves vouchers for Shelby County Schools, they won’t be limited to that area for long because one out of four children statewide qualify for federally-subsidized meals.

“It’s going to seep all across the state, and it’s going to be here,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell contends if the state’s main problem with K-12 education lies in Memphis, then the Legislature should put more financial emphasis there.

Ramsey doesn’t hold the same outlook.

“If it seeps throughout the state, there’s a reason it seeps throughout the state. There’s nothing wrong with that,” he said.

Ramsey points out Tennessee started with charter schools on a limited basis before allowing them statewide.

“You can hardly find any private schools in northeast Tennessee because people are satisfied. But the other side of that coin, if you’re an African-American mother in inner-city Memphis and every morning you have to send your child to a school that’s been on the failing list for 10 years or longer, and that’s your only choice, that’s wrong,” Ramsey said.

Fitzhugh notes vouchers’ potential pitfalls

In contrast, state Rep. Craig Fitzhugh, a Ripley Democrat, sees a financial deterrent and lack of support from the governor’s office as stumbling blocks. He also wonders whether the House has enough votes to pass it.

Tennessee ranks 45th to 48th in the nation in K-12 spending, and Fitzhugh, House minority leader, believes the state should put more emphasis on bolstering schools than paying for students to attend private schools.

“You’re taking away funding from an already underfunded school and putting it in vouchers,” he said. “I don’t think it’s productive for public schools or private schools.”

Furthermore, Fitzhugh, whose district lies in rural West Tennessee, is worried the state’s small school districts will be targeted by for-profit and online schools that produce bad results and weak students.

The Tennessee Education Association is continuing its years-long battle against vouchers. A TEA report contends vouchers “spell disaster” for the state’s public schools for a number of reasons.

No evidence exists showing vouchers improve student learning, the report states. In fact, a voucher program in Louisiana was found unconstitutional a year after it started and cost some $25 million, the report says, in addition to noting fraudulent programs in Milwaukee, Cleveland, Florida and Washington, D.C., where private schools are funded by taxpayer dollars but go unregulated.

Constitutional questions also surround school vouchers, especially when public dollars follow children to religious schools, a potential violation of the U.S. Constitution’s separation clause.

Under Tennessee’s Constitution, the Legislature is required to “provide for the maintenance, support and eligibility standards of a system of free public schools,” the article states, but nothing is said about private schools.

The report also points out tax dollars would go to schools that don’t have to meet state academic or teacher licensing requirements.

Nor do they have to adhere to open meetings and open records laws, report student achievement or be held accountable under federal laws for special-needs students.

Voucher legislation probably has its best chance so far to pass this session with the Republican Party holding supermajorities in the House and Senate.

But if it does become law, one thing is clear: The argument won’t end. Questions such as those raised by TEA and Democratic lawmakers will dog it for years to come.

Sam Stockard can be reached at sstockard44@gmail.com.