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Proposed voucher bill would have big implications for Memphis parents

Tennessee state legislators will vote Tuesday on a proposal that would offer so-called “Opportunity Scholarships,” also known as vouchers, to help children zoned to lowest-performing schools in the state attend private schools with the help of public funds.

Several voucher bills have been proposed in the state’s legislature this year. House Bill 0190, which passed the house budget committee last week, is scheduled for a vote in the House’s Ways and Means Committee later Tuesday. The senate version of the same proposal, Senate Bill 0196, has not yet been voted on.

Many students in the 140,000-student Shelby County school system would be eligible for the vouchers. Eighty-four percent of legacy Memphis City’s students were economically disadvantaged in the 2012-13 school year, and the bulk of the state’s bottom five percent schools are in Memphis.

Voucher programs are controversial: Proponents argue that they offer a critical choice for low-income families stuck in low-performing schools, while opponents argue that they drain public schools of much-needed resources while benefitting just a few students. Others fear that the vouchers will benefit parents who would not send their children to public school in the first place. As many of the state’s private schools are also religious, some argue that the programs unconstitutionally break the barrier between church and state.

As many as 5,000 students who are eligible for free and reduced-price lunch and who are enrolled in schools in the bottom five percent in the state would be eligible for vouchers next year if the bill passes. The program is slated to grow annually, providing up to 20,000 scholarships in the 2016-17 school year.

The bill’s authors estimate that approximately $15 million will be shifted away from public schools and to private schools accepting students using vouchers during the next fiscal year. That amount would grow each year.

In the current bill, the voucher would cover either the tuition and fees of the school, or the per-pupil state and local funds in the district a child attends, whichever is less. Students must have attended public school for at least two semesters before they begin attending school with the help of a voucher.

In order to accept voucher funds, schools would have to agree to abide by the state’s standardized testing protocol. That would mark a change for many local private schools. Schools accepting vouchers are not required to change the services they provide to special needs students.

Several amendments are still being considered, including one that would open the program up to students enrolled in the bottom ten percent of schools. The Tennessean reports than an amendment could also require private schools to abide by the state’s guidelines for teacher evaluations in public schools.

Tennessee would be the 24th state to adopt a voucher program. Each state’s program looks different. In Indiana, the program has grown rapidly in recent years and urban public schools have indeed seen significant drops in enrollment.

Vouchers are one of a number of state initiatives targeting the bottom 5 percent of schools: The state-run Achievement School District was created to take over and turn around schools that fall into that category, and districts can receive extra funds to create their own “innovation zones” to turn around such schools.

House Democrats voted against the proposal in the budget subcommittee meeting last week. And Shelby County Schools officially opposes the creation of a voucher program. A group of parents went to Nashville in order to oppose the bill, WREG reports. From WREG:

“As we know all dollars need to be allocated to public education and needs to remain with students being served by the public schools,” said Anthony Harris, a Gordon Elementary teacher.

But the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC) held an event in Memphis promoting school vouchers this February. And a separate group of Memphians led by state representative John Deberry, a Democrat, traveled to Nashville earlier this year to advocate for the bill.

Michael Benjamin, the director of the Tennessee Federation for Children, spoke at the SCLC event, describing his own choice to put his son in a private school. He said that many parents currently cannot afford that option. “No one can say the need’s not there. We’re putting more educational options on the menu…what better place to start than in the cradle of civil rights?”

And Tennessee Black Alliance for Educational Options, which also supports vouchers, recently established a chapter in Memphis.

The debate over vouchers in Tennessee is not new: Several school voucher bills were also floated during last year’s legislative session, but in the end they were withdrawn.

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