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VOL. 132 | NO. 28 | Wednesday, February 8, 2017

DeBerry, Tate Defend School Voucher Pilot Program

By Sam Stockard

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NASHVILLE – Two Memphis legislators co-sponsoring a Shelby County pilot voucher bill say the measure is one more attempt to give students more options for education.

John DeBerry

Rep. John DeBerry and Sen. Reginald Tate, both Democrats, defended their support of the measure sponsored by Germantown Republican Sen. Brian Kelsey the same day the U.S. Senate confirmed President Donald Trump’s selection of Betsy DeVos for Secretary of Education. DeVos has been under fire from Democrats for her support of charter schools and vouchers and a perceived lack of knowledge about public education.

DeBerry says vouchers, or the use of public funds to send students to private schools, is no “panacea.” But he says it’s up to the Legislature to debate the matter and move forward one way or the other.

“Everything we’ve done has been an experiment. Some of them have been successful, some of them haven’t been successful,” says DeBerry, a Democrat representing District 90. “But I’m still in a mode to where I’m looking for every opportunity for parents to take charge of their children’s education. For too long, they were told they had to go to this school, they had to go to that school because of their ZIP code. There was nothing they could do.”

The legislation carried by Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, for a pilot program gradually increasing the number of students receiving scholarships would affect only Shelby County schools, which has some 30 schools on the state’s priority list for failing to meet minimum standards.

Reginald Tate

DeBerry, a co-sponsor of the House version, points out the state and local school district can’t “claim success because Memphis parents recently camped out all night to enroll their children in an optional school.”

Tate, who represents District 33 in Shelby County, downplays the potential impact of vouchers, saying even if legislation were to pass statewide, only about 10,000 to 12,000 students would be able to attend a private school using public dollars or donations because of the difficulty of providing building space and funds.

Saying it’s not a “wide open choice,” Tate questions how many students would be able to attend a private school if they had to provide their own transportation and find money to cover $15,000 in tuition, for example, if the state and local system offer only about $9,000.

“So it’s really all in somebody’s mind about what the effect is,” Tate says. “But if one of (the students) can get out, that may be the one that needs to get out, and I don’t want to stop the one that can get out.”

The Shelby County legislative delegation is hardly in agreement over the use of vouchers. Democratic Rep. Antonio Parkinson last week blasted Kelsey over the bill, saying Shelby County is a “dumping ground” for the Legislature’s education experiments.

Parkinson, who took the bill as an insult “both personally and professionally,” says it is unfortunate some of the county’s delegation is “part of that pattern,” but he stopped short of criticizing DeBerry and Tate.

Democrats’ view

In the wake of DeVos’ Senate confirmation, House Minority Caucus Chairman Mike Stewart calls the vote a “stark reminder” of the difference between the two political parties. He points out DeVos has “devoted her life to de-funding and otherwise undermining traditional public schools” and received no votes from Democrats.

“Americans have the Republicans entirely to blame for what may be the singularly worst cabinet appointment since Donald Rumsfeld, and it’s no accident that the GOP has taken this unfortunate step,” Stewart says. Rumsfeld was Secretary of Defense under President Gerald Ford and President George W. Bush and considered largely responsible for missteps in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Stewart says Republicans for years have been pushing “a radical libertarian agenda” to eliminate public schools and turn the money over to private entities, and he says DeVos led the charge for vouchers and for-profit charter schools in Michigan while fighting efforts to hold charters accountable for performance.

The “anti-public school agenda” backed by DeVos is “alive and well” in the Tennessee Legislature, Stewart says, with bills such as the one sponsored by Kelsey and another by Rep. Bill Dunn to allow vouchers, or opportunity scholarships, statewide.

While Dunn says he is sponsoring the measure to put children ahead of bureaucrats, Stewart says both pieces of legislation promote one of DeVos’ “signature failures – school vouchers.”

“For those like DeVos who really hope to defund and ultimately eliminate public schools, vouchers are just the ticket,” Stewart says.

DeBerry, on the other hand, says lawmakers shouldn’t “demonize” vouchers, and he points out not one Tennessee student has received public dollars to attend a private school, yet systems across the state are still battling the same problems in education.

He says voucher legislation was initiated in 2000, long before groups organized to support the matter with lobbying and political contributions.

“They came and supported us because of what we were already doing,” he says.

DeBerry recalls House Speaker Beth Harwell and the late Rep. Lois DeBerry fighting for charter schools in the House, and he considers voucher legislation to be at the same point.

“My take on it is we’re simply trying to save children,” he says.

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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