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VOL. 132 | NO. 58 | Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Shelby County Schools Voucher Bill Advances in House

By Sam Stockard

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NASHVILLE – Despite a packed room of Memphis-area people opposed to vouchers for public school students, a House Education Committee advanced a pilot program targeting low-income children in Shelby County Schools system’s low-performing schools.

After an hour and a half of debate and testimony from Memphis educators and children, lawmakers sent the legislation to the House Government Operations Committee after voting 8-5 in favor of an amendment that rewrote the bill. It also must go through the Finance, Ways & Means Committee and Calendar & Rules Committee before it can reach the House floor.

Members of the Shelby County delegation on the panel were split, with Reps. John DeBerry and Mark White supporting the amendment and Reps. Johnnie Turner, Raumesh Akbari and Ron Lollar opposing it along with House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh of Ripley in West Tennessee.

“This is about one family, one set of parents, one child making one decision about their child,” said DeBerry, a Memphis Democrat co-sponsoring the bill. “To make it convoluted as though the zombies are gonna come out and the moon is gonna turn to blood and all this if we pass vouchers, we just really need to stop that because it’s really not fair to this issue.”

Turner, a former teacher and longtime critic of efforts to divert public dollars, said private schools should offer their own scholarships to students from struggling schools if they want them to enroll.

“I think it really is just another attack on public schools. Follow where the money goes,” said Turner, casting doubts on whether private schools such as Memphis University School want to take in a student who is failing at a public school.

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

The Senate version, which is sponsored by Sen. Brian Kelsey, a Germantown Republican, has been recommended to the Senate Finance, Ways & Means Committee.

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.

DeBerry pointed out some of the state money for students will remain in public schools even if they move to private schools.

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.

Under the amendment placed in the bill, public school students who transfer to private schools would be required to take TNReady tests, but other students at those private schools would not.

“I think our courts will probably have something to say about it,” said Lollar, a Bartlett Republican who calls the legislation a starting point for vouchers to spread across the state.

Lollar pointed out municipal school systems outside Shelby County Schools are taking more than a thousand non-district students already, and he noted every city school system in the county, in addition to the Shelby County Commission, opposes the voucher legislation.

Akbari, a Memphis Democrat, said she could support the measure if statistics showed vouchers are working in other states. She also pointed out President Donald Trump is placing $1.4 billion into his budget plan for vouchers, saying they are a good way to capture minority votes.

“I think this is a premature movement,” said Akbari, who noted the pilot should be done statewide and not just in Shelby County.

Shelby County Schools board member Stephanie Love was among several Memphis educators who spoke in opposition to the measure. Afterward, she was disappointed that committee members failed to consider the problems many low-income children experience and called it “disrespectful” for those who say teachers are not working hard.

“Unfortunately, we have parents who have not taken education as their No. 1 priority. And there is no voucher bill, there is no ASD, there is no charter that will fix this public school system unless we begin to address the issues that the children bring into the school,” Love said.

Her daughter, Da’Zyria Love, a third-grader at Delano Optional School, also spoke to the committee, saying her neighborhood is infested with gangs and drugs but her mother provides strong support.

“Everybody doesn’t have a mom like mine,” she said. “I just want you to know Shelby County Schools has some great options.”

Shelby County Schools has optional schools for students who apply, in addition to Innovation Zone schools where principals are given leeway and increased funding to turn them in the right direction. The system also has charter schools being run through the Achievement School District, a state operation adopted nearly five years ago to revive low-performing schools.

White, a Memphis Republican, made note of the experimentation with charters and the Achievement School District, which led to the creation of I-Zone schools.

“And they’re picking up the game because they don’t want to lose the students. But that’s what we want. We want everybody to work hard so they don’t lose the students, and then the students and the parents win,” White said. “I’ve always been for parental choice, and that’s how the vote came down.”

DeBerry said afterward he respects the process, which will ultimately require 51 votes for passage in the House, as well as approval by the Senate.

A statewide measure for vouchers succeeded the past two years in the Senate but not in the full House, largely because of opposition by rural legislators. A voucher bill sponsored by Republican Rep. Bill Dunn of Knoxville affecting the entire state has been assigned to the House Education Administration & Planning Subcommittee, but Dunn has not tried to pass it there.

The bill that passed Tuesday in the House committee is sponsored by Republican Rep. Harry Brooks, of Knoxville, who chairs the committee.

Said Lollar at the outset of the meeting, “You’re stepping into an area that’s not your area and telling us what to do.”

And, similarly to several other opponents, he said vouchers have more to do with private entities using public money than with helping children succeed.

DeBerry, however, continued to make his point that vouchers can’t be blamed for the problems suffered by Memphis and Shelby County schools for decades, since they’ve never been used. DeBerry also said Memphis-area teachers and educators “have no right” to try to protect a school system, giving it priority over the opportunity for parents to send their children to a private school.

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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