By Grace Tatter, Chalkbeat Tennessee
After years of near misses, some Tennessee lawmakers are trying a more targeted approach to tuition vouchers with a proposal to pilot them exclusively in Memphis.
For more than five years, lawmakers have debated the merits of creating a voucher program that would allow parents of students in low-performing schools to use public funds to pay for private school tuition.
But the new Memphis-focused bill, sponsored by Sen. Brian Kelsey of Germantown and Rep. Harry Brooks of Knoxville, appears to have momentum. The measure sailed this week through its first committees in both chambers of the legislature.
Here are answers to questions from some of our readers about the new proposal:
Who would be impacted?
Kelsey’s bill focuses only on students in Shelby County Schools. First priority would go to students who meet the federal qualification for free and reduced lunch, which means their family income is up to 185 percent above the federal poverty threshold, and who are also zoned to a school in the state’s bottom 5 percent. Other students attending Shelby County Schools could take any leftover vouchers. As of now, the program is capped at 5,000 students, and the state estimates it could cost the local district nearly $19 million a year.
When would it go into effect?
The pilot program would begin in the fall of 2018 and run through the 2022-23 school year, at which point it would be terminated, continued or expanded, depending on what the General Assembly decides.
What schools would take vouchers?
Catholic schools are the most eager. In Memphis, leaders of Jubilee Schools have signaled they would participate in a voucher program. Jubilee was established expressly to serve families from low-income families. In other states with voucher programs, students have overwhelmingly attended religious schools.
Beyond that, it’s not clear how many private schools are willing to accept vouchers. In 2014, a researcher at Vanderbilt University found that most Memphis private schools weren’t interested. For one thing, the proposed vouchers are worth only $7,000, and private schools wouldn’t be allowed to charge more. Many of the city’s best-known private schools — like Kelsey’s alma mater, Memphis University School — have much higher tuitions. For another, private schools are wary of opening themselves up to the regulation and accountability measures that accepting public funding could involve.
How have vouchers impacted student achievement in other states?
Until recently, research was mixed. But in recent months, three studies, including one from the pro-school choice Thomas B. Fordham Institute, have suggested that students who participated performed worse on tests than their peers who remained in public schools. A study of Louisiana showed that public elementary school students who started at the 50th percentile in math dropped to the 26th percentile in a single year after using a voucher to transfer to a private school.
Despite the new research, Tennessee lawmakers are optimistic that Memphis would see better results.
How would private schools be held accountable?
That part of the bill is in flux. Lawmakers want the Tennessee Comptroller’s Office of Research and Education Accountability to assess the program’s results by comparing students’ test scores, as well as their growth measured by TVAAS, which stands for the Tennessee Value Added Assessment System. That means that students in private schools would have to take either the state’s TNReady test, or another nationally normed assessment approved by the State Board of Education. It also means that participating private schools would have to have at least 10 students in each grade level, so that researchers would have enough data to make meaningful comparisons.
If a private school was below expectations according to TVAAS, they wouldn’t be allowed to enroll new students through the voucher program. After two years, they would be cut off from voucher money altogether.
Kelsey is wary of making private schools take the same tests as Tennessee public schools after last year’s testing malfunctions. “I’m a little reticent to put a disastrous test onto private schools,” he said Wednesday.
How is the Kelsey-Brooks bill different from last year’s voucher bill?
This bill only targets Memphis and offers far fewer vouchers — a cap of 5,000, instead of 20,000 under the proposal sponsored by Rep. Bill Dunn of Knoxville. Dunn’s bill would target students zoned to the bottom 5 percent of schools in Tennessee, most of which are in Memphis and Nashville, with some in Hamilton, Knox and Madison counties. Like Kelsey’s bill, the proposal allows any students who reside in the district to take leftover vouchers, meaning potentially students zoned even to high-performing schools in Memphis, Nashville, Knoxville, Chattanooga and Jackson could cash vouchers out at a private school. Dunn’s bill, which is sponsored in the Senate by Todd Gardenhire, is also under consideration this year, though it has not yet been voted on.
What are the chances that the newest voucher bill becomes law?
Hard to say. Vouchers have swept through the Senate for six years, and this proposal is almost certain to pass that chamber as well. But the House has been trickier. Dunn’s voucher bill made it to the House floor last year — the farthest a voucher bill had ever gone in that chamber — before he pulled it at the last minute. He said he was just shy of the needed votes and that some lawmakers had been scared off after getting pushback from from their local school boards.
This year, lawmakers hope that targeting Memphis and putting an expiration date on the pilot will allay fears from people outside of Memphis. “We’re doing everything possible to remove anyone’s objections to trying this,” said Rep. John DeBerry, one of the few Memphis caucus members who supports the measure.
Who supports it?
In addition to a broad swath of lawmakers — mainly Republicans, but also DeBerry and Sen. Reginald Tate, both Democrats from Memphis — vouchers have gotten support from educational advocacy organizations such as TennesseeCAN, the Tennessee Federation for Children (formerly led by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos), and Memphis-based Campaign for School Equity. Representatives from those groups argue that vouchers empower parents to make better decisions for their child’s education.
LaShundra Richmond, a Memphis parent who has worked for a school choice advocacy group in the city, testified Wednesday to the Senate Education Committee on behalf of Campaign for School Equity. She had pulled her daughter out of a charter school this year in favor of a private school. “It was no indictment of that (charter school), it was not a stab at the school system,” Richmond said. “As a parent, I am charged with ensuring her academic success. … I am burdened by how many families and parents do not have that option.”
And who opposes it?
Groups representing teachers, superintendents, school boards and school districts all oppose the bill, wary of the potential negative learning impact on student participants, as well as the loss of education funding to public schools.
The opposition isn’t just from Memphis, which would be most impacted. Former state Sen. Roy Herron, a lobbyist for a coalition of rural districts known as the Tennessee School Systems for Equity, told lawmakers on Tuesday that any voucher legislation opens the door to more expansive policies in the future.
“We know that what starts in Memphis won’t stay in Memphis,” Herron said.
NOTE: What other questions do you have about school vouchers? Email [email protected]?
(Email Grace Tatter at [email protected])