NASHVILLE – Rep. Antonio Parkinson lashed out Thursday at fellow Shelby County delegation member Sen. Brian Kelsey, calling his pilot voucher bill for Memphis schools “insulting, both personally and professionally.”
“It appears there’s a pattern that Shelby County is always the dumping ground for this Legislature, and I believe Shelby County citizens are tired of being the target of this Legislature,” Parkinson says. “In some cases, unfortunately, some of our own delegation is part of that pattern that’s happening.”
Parkinson, a Memphis Democrat, says the proposal to use public dollars to send children in Shelby County’s low-performing schools to private schools is “unfair” to students, parents and the school system. He contends such a pilot, if adopted, should be tested statewide because Tennessee’s three other largest cities also have schools on the priority list for failing to meet minimum standards.
In addition, Parkinson linked the proposal to President Donald Trump’s pick for education secretary, Betsy DeVos, because she has been a proponent for charter schools and vouchers, a point of contention for Democratic and Republican U.S. senators.
Parkinson says vouchers take money from public schools and dump it “into privateers and people making money off of these children, most of which tend to be minority.” Furthermore, he calls it an inherently “unfair and discriminatory practice.”
Kelsey, long a proponent of vouchers, has Memphis Democratic Sen. Reginald Tate co-sponsoring his measure this session, while the House version of the bill is being co-sponsored by Memphis Democratic Rep. John Deberry.
Asked if he is trying to link Tate or Deberry to Trump’s education secretary pick, Parkinson says he isn’t “targeting” anyone, though he points out Kelsey is the main sponsor.
“I’m just saying what is the truth, that there are members of the Shelby County delegation that are part of the targeting of Shelby County for some of these experiments, especially in education,” Parkinson says.
Asked about Parkinson’s comments, Kelsey says, “I’m glad that this bill has bipartisan support from legislators in Shelby County.”
Questioned about whether he feels the bill makes a connection between himself and DeVos, Kelsey says, “I think President Trump’s huge margin of victory here in Tennessee is indicative of the fact that Tennesseans trust him and his business decisions for public policies issues such as school choice. President Trump used this as a major way that his administration is going to reach out to minority voters and I agree with him wholeheartedly.”
Tate and Deberry were unavailable for immediate response.
Kelsey’s legislation would affect school districts in Tennessee with 30 or more schools on the priority list for failing to meet the required standards. Shelby County is the only system statewide with that number, many of which are being operated by the state’s Achievement School District.
The bill calls for 5,000 scholarships to private schools to be awarded to students in the school district in the first year and 20,000 in the fourth year.
Rep. Bill Dunn, a Knoxville Republican, also renewed legislation this week to allow vouchers statewide in failing schools. Dunn was unable to gather enough votes to pass his initiative in 2016 and opted not to bring it to the House floor. The Senate version of his bill passed with relative ease.
Dunn repeatedly says he wants to “put children before bureaucrats” in sponsoring the legislation.
It has failed in previous years, mainly because of opposition from rural Republicans. But most Democratic House members are fiercely opposed.
“There has not been a proven case study anywhere in the United States where vouchers have improved student performance,” says Rep. Bo Mitchell, a Nashville Democrat. “Again, we’re going to use our students for another laboratory experiment to make some profiteers some money in this state. And that’s the bottom line of it.”
Mitchell says he believe the state’s top-performing private schools won’t accept voucher students because the state won’t provide enough funding to cover their tuition. The amount called for in Kelsey’s bill is the total provided by state and local education associations.
As a result, he says, “fly-by-night” and “rebranded” charter schools will operate the schools that take students with voucher funds, or schools unable to offer a comparable education to public schools.
“Public education’s worked quite well. It’s the foundation and principles of our democracy,” Mitchell says.
Sam Stockard is a Nashville-based reporter covering the Legislature for The Memphis Daily News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.