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VOL. 132 | NO. 55 | Friday, March 17, 2017

Norris Says Proposed School Voucher Legislation ‘Problematic’

By Sam Stockard

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NASHVILLE – Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris expressed reservations Wednesday, March 15, about legislation allowing tax dollars to be used to send low-income students in struggling public schools to private schools.

“It’s problematic,” Norris said when asked about the legislation in light of a Shelby County Commission vote opposing the voucher bill. The measure targets Shelby County because it has some 30 schools in the state’s lowest 5 percent for student performance.

Sponsored by Sen. Brian Kelsey, a Germantown Republican, the bill would set up a five-year pilot program allowing students from low-performing schools to receive “opportunity scholarships” to attend private schools. The bill would start with up to 2,500 students and increase to a maximum of 5,000 during the pilot period.

Norris, a Collierville Republican, said he is not philosophically opposed to vouchers and even sponsored previous voucher legislation, which failed. Norris said he hasn’t talked to Kelsey about the matter and noted he appreciates his efforts.

But the measure is “problematic” for a combination of reasons, Norris said, mainly because of opposition by the Shelby County Commission and concerns about holding private schools “accountable” to the same standards as public schools.

Some opponents point out students who attend private schools as part of the program won’t be required to take the TNReady assessment, as public school students will.

Rep. Antonio Parkinson, a Memphis Democrat who opposes the legislation, commended Norris “for seeing” problems with the measure.

“There’s pressure building and people are sacrificing, taking off from work to be here, because they’re passionate against the fact that they targeted Shelby County, as if Shelby County caused all of the problems with regard to education,” Parkinson said. “It’s becoming personal for a Shelby County legislator to be carrying legislation like that.”

Parkinson pointed out Hamilton County has low-performing schools but is not included in the pilot program legislation, which he termed a “great experiment.”

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.

Rep. John DeBerry, who is co-sponsoring the House version of the bill, spent part of Thursday talking to Shelby County teachers, just two days after he had a heated conversation with voucher opponents when the bill was postponed in the House Education Administration & Planning Committee. It is expected to be heard Tuesday, March 21.

DeBerry, a Memphis Democrat, contends it is time to give vouchers a chance to work, because the school system continues to have problems even though no child has ever received an opportunity scholarship. DeBerry also points out that some of the state funding for students will remain at public schools even after students leave for a private school.

Kelsey was buoyed recently by the measure’s unanimous support in the Senate Education Committee and a House Education subcommittee.

He could not be reached for comment on Norris’ concern about the bill. But Kelsey recently said, “This is just a pilot program. We’re going to see whether it works once and for all. It’s time to put this discussion to bed and see whether opportunity scholarships really can work for Tennessee. I think it can, but if it doesn’t, we’ll end it, and we won’t have this discussion anymore.”

Sam Stockard covers the Legislature for The Memphis Daily News. He can be reached at sstockard44@gmail.com.

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