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VOL. 132 | NO. 70 | Friday, April 7, 2017

House Committee Postpones School Voucher Bill Again

By Sam Stockard

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A House committee amended legislation setting up a pilot voucher program for low-income students in Shelby County, enabling private schools who take students from struggling public schools to opt out of state-required tests.

But the Government Operations Committee, after hearing testimony from groups for and against vouchers, adjourned before voting on the bill, postponing the matter a second time until Wednesday, April 12.

The committee, which is designed to review legislation, could still send a negative recommendation on the bill to the House Finance, Ways and Means Subcommittee, according to Chairman Jeremy Faison. The panel cannot kill legislation but can make changes, he said.

It amended the bill by a one-vote margin Wednesday, April 5, even though Kristi Baird, assistant superintendent of Catholic Schools in Memphis, told the committee 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-reference 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.

“With vouchers we would be able to expand the number of students we can serve,” Baird said.

One of the sticking points in the legislation is whether students from struggling schools in the Shelby County system would have to take the TNReady test if they receive public dollars to attend a private school.

“If you’re going to make it permissive for Jubilee schools to opt in or out of the TNReady test, that’s not what the bill was intended to do. The initial (intent) was for students who receive vouchers and go to a private school to take the state test,” said Reginald Fentress, UniServ director for Memphis Shelby County Education Association. “It should be required if you’re receiving a public school voucher.”

Roy Herron, a former legislator who represents Tennessee School Systems for Equity, warned lawmakers approving a pilot voucher program in Shelby County, which has the largest number of Priority schools in Tennessee, would lead to vouchers statewide.

“Memphis is not Las Vegas,” Herron said. “What happens in Memphis won’t stay in Memphis.”

Herron contended allowing students and state dollars to leave Shelby County Schools for private schools would lead to a property tax increase, not only in the Memphis area, but eventually statewide if the proposal spreads.

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 and go to private schools.

The bill’s sponsor, Republican Rep. Harry Brooks of Knoxville, argues 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, and rural Republicans from across the state have helped defeat other voucher bills in the last couple of years.

Faison, a Republican from Cosby in East Tennessee, contends private schools shouldn’t be forced to administer the TNReady test, but he also opposes the concept of vouchers.

“I’m gonna vote against the bill. I’m openly against vouchers for that very reason,” Faison said. “You ought not take government money and send it to a religious organization, because then you’re gonna try to control the religious organization. Leave them alone, let them teach what they want to teach.”

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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