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Voucher amendment would extend beyond private schools to out-of-district public schools

Students attend a summer program at De La Salle Elementary, a Catholic school in Memphis that has been open to accepting state-funded tuition vouchers.
Students attend a summer program at De La Salle Elementary, a Catholic school in Memphis that has been open to accepting state-funded tuition vouchers.
Grace Tatter

A bill that would allow low-income students to receive vouchers to help pay for private school tuition passed Tuesday in the Senate Finance Committee, as it did last year in Tennessee. But this year, an amendment was added that would expand the program to out-of-district public schools.

The panel voted unanimously to amend Senate Bill 999 to allow families also to choose public schools across district lines, with state funding following the students through a voucher system.

The amendment was proposed by Sen. Mark Norris (R-Collierville).

“What if there’s a child in public school A who is not receiving an adequate education for any number of reasons, and the parents wish to free that child of such bondage, and could do so, and might have the means for transporting said student to another public school close enough by?” Norris asked the committee. “Why must we limit it to non-public schools?”

It wasn’t until after the amendment passed that Sen. Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown), a longtime voucher supporter, raised concerns about the change. Kelsey told the panel that allowing funding to travel across district lines could result in complications with the Basic Education Program (BEP), the state’s formula to determine how much funding every school system receives from the state.

The amendment could impact Shelby County Schools and its surrounding suburban municipal school districts, which broke off in 2014 following the 2013 merger of the former Memphis City Schools with Shelby County Schools. Norris and Kelsey both represent Shelby County districts that include new suburban school systems.

If the bill becomes law, it would not mandate that schools accept vouchers, meaning that schools still could rebuff families who desire to use the voucher system to switch to private schools or to public schools outside of their district.

Two committee members, Sen. Thelma Harper (D-Nashville) and Sen. Doug Overbey (R-Maryville), voted against the bill. “I just think it’s ridiculous,” Harper said before the 9-2 vote. “Basically, what you’re doing is getting rid of public schools.”

The House version of the bill was removed Tuesday from the agenda of the Education Administration and Planning Committee. Rep. Bill Dunn (R-Knoxville), the lead sponsor, said it will be back in a few weeks.

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