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VOL. 130 | NO. 46 | Monday, March 9, 2015

Commission Debates School Voucher Bill

By Bill Dries

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Shelby County Commissioners have a lively difference of opinion about the schools voucher bill moving through the Tennessee legislature in Nashville even though nobody on the commission has a vote on the proposal.

The commission will vote Monday, March 9, on a resolution that urges legislators from Shelby County to oppose the legislation.

The commission meets at 3 p.m. at the Vasco Smith Administration Building, 160 N. Main St. Follow the meeting @tdnpols, www.twitter.com/tdnpols.

The bill mirrors a proposal backed in previous sessions by Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam. The state Senate Education Committee and a state House education subcommittee approved it last week.

The proposal won approval in the state Senate last year but failed in the House when legislators there sought to expand eligibility.

Haslam has insisted the vouchers have family income guidelines that would limit it, at least in the beginning, to students from the poorest families in the state’s bottom 5 percent of schools in terms of student achievement.


Commissioner David Reaves, a former Shelby County Schools board member, is the author of the resolution opposing the voucher bills.

“I oppose any voucher legislation on the premise that we should not be funneling public dollars into private schools,” Reaves said Wednesday, March 4, in commission committee sessions.

He cited the commission’s support of the Shelby County Schools reform efforts under superintendent Dorsey Hopson and the goals of preparing students for college or a career before they graduate high school.

“I feel that this voucher program will undermine the funding sources to continue that work,” he added. “These voucher bills will siphon off dollars out of the district. If this passes, then it opens up into the future the potential to affect more than the lowest 5 percent.”


Commissioner Heidi Shafer argued for the voucher bill and against Reaves’ resolution saying parents of students in the bottom 5 percent schools should have an “escape hatch” for children “trapped” in those schools.

“Competition makes everybody perform better,” she said. “I think it does create a real hardship for the schools. But they are going to have to learn to compete the way the rest of us do.”

Shafer said there has been some improvement at some schools in the bottom 5 percent, most of which are in Memphis.

“But not enough and not fast enough,” she said. “I’m willing to open the door and say let’s at least provide an escape hatch for some of these kids.”

Reaves said there are such exits and alternatives with transfers through open enrollment and to optional schools as well as Innovation Zone schools and schools in the state-run Achievement School District.

“My fear is we are going to give rise to a variety of private schools that are not high performing private schools,” he said. “People are going to go into the private schools business.”

Commissioner Terry Roland faulted Republican state Senator Brian Kelsey, who in past legislative sessions has tried to broaden the reach of the vouchers beyond what Haslam has proposed.

Kelsey is backing Haslam’s version this year in Nashville.

But Roland contrasted the voucher effort with Kelsey’s vocal opposition to Haslam’s Insure Tennessee proposal which would have extended Medicaid coverage and which the legislature defeated in special session last month.

Roland described Kelsey’s positions as favoring giving public money to private schools, “But I’m not going to give you any public money to go to the doctor.”

The commission also considers Monday advancing $50,000 to the Shelby County Election Commission for the April 16 referendum election in Lakeland on the $50 million bond issue for the construction of Lakeland Prep school.

Lakeland’s board of commissioners and its school board have approved pursuing Lakeland Prep, and the school board voted last month to hire architects and planners to begin design work on the school.

The school system is considering 94 acres of land north of U.S. 70 and east of Canada Road for the grades 6-12 school, which would open in August 2017.

Lakeland citizens circulated a petition to force the referendum on the bond issue that would finance the school and gathered the necessary number of signatures to put it on the April ballot.

The city of Lakeland would reimburse Shelby County government for the $50,000 the commission votes on Monday.

Dropped from Monday’s agenda is commissioner Steve Basar’s resolution to create a Youth Sports Authority to govern the Fairgrounds Tourism Development Zone. The city of Memphis is considering the TDZ to finance the redevelopment of the Fairgrounds as a set of facilities to host amateur athletic tournaments.

The city’s pursuit of the TDZ as well as a specific plan for the Fairgrounds is being reviewed by the administration of Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. Wharton is seeking a panel of Urban Land Institute experts from outside Memphis and local experts to hear from the public over a one-week period and then issue a preliminary set of recommendations.

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