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VOL. 132 | NO. 53 | Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Shelby County Educators Spar With DeBerry Over Voucher Bill

By Sam Stockard

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NASHVILLE – A group of Shelby County teachers and parents disappointed that voucher legislation was put off until next week turned their ire Tuesday, March 14, on Rep. John DeBerry, and he responded in kind.

JOHN DeBERRY

Collierville resident Sonya H. Smith and DeBerry exchanged heated words after the House Education Administration & Planning Committee dismissed, clearly disagreeing on the potential impact of a pilot program that would enable Shelby County students to use public dollars to attend private schools.

Smith argued that she had to take her children out of a private school because she was in “a majority white situation” and wasn’t receiving equal treatment. DeBerry, who acknowledged his child attended a private school, asked, “What does that have to do with vouchers?”

The shouting match devolved quickly with DeBerry, a co-sponsor of the bill, saying, “Not one voucher has been given out in the state of Tennessee and we’ve still got problems.”

Hill responded, “We’ve got problems because of funding. You know that.”

Said DeBerry, “The school system controls all the funds for a hundred years and the children still fail.”

Hill, however, said, “Our cities fail, our communities fail. You live in Midtown,” an apparent reference to DeBerry’s address in a nicer part of Memphis.

The legislation is sponsored by Sen. Brian Kelsey in the Senate and Rep. Harry Brooks of Knoxville in the House, who chaired the House committee meeting. Brooks said afterward he had no choice but to end the meeting and postpone the bill’s consideration because they ran out of time and legislators had to attend other meetings.

“There was no one in that room that wanted to run that bill more than I did,” Brooks said, “because that puts us a week behind schedule and that’s a problem.” He said the committee is scheduled to close within a couple of weeks, and he wants to make sure the bill makes it through the committee process and to the House floor.

Brooks, a state lawmaker since 2002 who is considering making this his last two-year term, said he strongly supports the measure, which would affect only Shelby County.

“We’ve got to answer the question: Does this program help our kids or not? We put stipulations in there that give us real good evaluative comparisons. Are these kids improving? Are this kids growing? Are they successful academically?” Brooks said. “We’ve got clear standards in the statute that have never been in any other statutes. And we’ve got the best education researchers in the state doing the evaluation, independent with the comptroller’s office.”

Hill and other disagreed.

“The truth of the matter is, every time something comes up people want to use our children as guinea pigs,” said Hill, who described herself as a concerned citizen. “And then to have the nerve to not even talk to us about it and say we know what’s best for you. That’s paternalistic on all points. We don’t need any more masters. These are our children, and we’re gonna fight for them.”

Jacklyn Boggs, a Memphis teacher, said her biggest concern is that special needs students are not protected in private schools under the law.

“They’re not protected. We have to think about that very vulnerable population. If I don’t speak for them, who does?” Boggs asked.

Hamilton High School teacher Michael Pleasants pointed out the legislation by Kelsey doesn’t affect his constituents in Germantown.

“He put it on people like it’s some punishment on these priority schools or something like that,” Pleasants said. “But really, there’s no research that shows vouchers are gonna help priority schools.”

The contingent from Shelby County was able to visit this week, some bringing children, because of spring break. And they might not be able to return next week.

Retired Memphis City and Shelby County teacher Celestine French said she doesn’t feel legislators understand the situation.

“We feel like we are being pushed aside, and our public education is at stake,” French said, noting teachers want support from lawmakers and intend to keep returning to the General Assembly to voice their concerns.

The group met with DeBerry in his office for about an hour after the meeting.

Once things cooled down, DeBerry discussed the situation.

“They’ve been misinformed about me. They’ve been misinformed about the Legislature, about what the legislative intent of this bill is,” DeBerry said. “They’ve been misinformed about the amendments that are coming and the way the bill is written. I love our teachers. And they’re passionate. I wish more of them would stay because we had a lot of them that retired and changed.”

DeBerry said the legislation is not about “cramming something” down people’s throats and “opening the doors” of public schools for a mass exodus of students.

“This is about one set of parents taking one student to the school of their choice. That’s all this voucher program does. And it gives parental choice. It is totally parent-driven,” he said.

The legislation calls for a five-year pilot program gradually increasing the number of low-income students up to 5,000 in the final year using public funds to attend private schools. It would affect only Shelby County Schools, which has about 30 schools on the state’s priority list for failing to meet minimum academic standards.

The legislation’s impact on the state budget in the first year, fiscal 2017-18, is estimated at $330,400 and $230,400 in subsequent years for administrative and other costs. Another $8.8 million, about $7,000 per child, would follow students to private schools in the first year, increasing based on the number of participating students, according to the bill’s fiscal note.

The program would be monitored by the Tennessee Comptroller’s Office of Research and Education Accountability, and private schools falling significantly below achievement expectations two years in a row would be suspended from participating, according to a Republican Caucus statement.

DeBerry, who has more than $140,400 in his House campaign account, has received about $11,500 from groups supporting vouchers and charter schools over the last five years. But he said that has nothing to do with his stance in favor of the pilot voucher program.

“I was doing this way before it was cool,” DeBerry said.

The measure is scheduled to be heard first in the House committee next Tuesday, according to Brooks.

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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