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VOL. 132 | NO. 74 | Thursday, April 13, 2017

House Committee Moves Voucher Bill With ‘Neutral’ Recommendation

By Sam Stockard

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Legislation setting up a pilot voucher program for low-income students in Shelby County emerged Wednesday, April 12, from the House Government Operations Committee after two weeks of delay.

But an amendment enabling private schools who accept public students to opt out of state-required testing could cause it to go back to the starting line.

The Government Operations Committee, which can’t kill legislation, sent the measure to the House Finance, Ways and Means Committee with a neutral recommendation. The bill’s fiscal impact is projected at $8.8 million in its first year and up to $18.6 million in its fourth year as students leave schools in the state’s bottom 5 percent for private schools.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Harry Brooks, though, said he is “obligated” to return the bill to its original form or take it back to the House Education Administration and Planning Committee, which he chairs.

“I don’t think it’s the death of the bill, but we’ll work through the process and see where it lead us,” said Brooks, a Knoxville Republican.

Tony Thompson, who represents Shelby County Schools, said he expected to bill to come out of the Government Operations Committee, but he was uncertain which direction Brooks would take it once it goes to the finance committee.

Asked if he believes the testing amendment could lead to the bill’s demise, Thompson said, “We’ll have to see, but I think the members feel like if tax dollars are gonna be spent with private schools then they need to be subject to the same testing requirements that all other students are subject to.”

Government Operations Committee Chairman Rep. Jeremy Faison sponsored the amendment allowing private schools to opt out of state-required tests. The amendment passed in the committee last week by one vote.

Faison, a Republican from Cosby in East Tennessee, says private schools shouldn’t be forced to administer the TNReady test, but he also opposes the concept of vouchers, stating he plans to vote against the bill ultimately.

“You ought not take government money and send it to a religious organization, because then you’re gonna try to control the religious organization,” Faison said previously. “Leave them alone, let them teach what they want to teach.”

Other voucher legislation passed in the Senate over the last few years but run into trouble in the House because rural legislators fear it could affect their school districts. This version is sponsored by Sen. Brian Kelsey, a Germantown Republican.

Kelsey and Brooks argue students should be given the opportunity to leave low-performing schools for a private school and a chance for a new environment.

Rep. John DeBerry, a Memphis Democrat, co-sponsors the House version of the bill. But only one other House member from Shelby County supports it.

Kristi Baird, assistant superintendent of Catholic Schools in Memphis, told the committee last week that Jubilee schools would adopt the TNReady test for all students if required by the legislation. Otherwise, she said, Jubilee schools would continue to use a national norm-referenced test to determine how students are doing academically.

Baird told the committee Jubilee schools have 1,600 students, most of them low-income, African-American students, and they had a 99 percent graduation rate last year plus 100 percent college acceptance.

But Rep. Bo Mitchell, a Nashville Democrat, pointed out Jubilee schools had lost a large number of students over the past few years, indicating it might need state dollars from public schools students.

Sam Stockard is a Nashville-based reporter covering the Legislature for the Memphis Daily News. He can be reached at sstockard44@gmail.com.

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