When the General Assembly kicks off in earnest next week, one education issue is sure to come up: vouchers.
This will mark Tennessee’s seventh year of legislative debate over vouchers, which are taxpayer-backed scholarships that parents could use to send their kids to private school. In Tennessee, recent legislative proposals would have applied only to students attending the state’s lowest-performing schools.
Whether you’ve followed the debate in years past, or are just tuning in, here’s our list of stories to get informed for this year’s showdown:
Let’s pick up where the legislature left off last year — with Rep. Bill Dunn pulling the bill right before it reached the House floor for the first time. The Knoxville Republican, who has championed voucher legislation for years, said he was two votes short.
Here’s what voucher legislation has looked like in the past — and its potential to shake up public education.
Vouchers are in the national spotlight thanks to President Trump’s pick for U.S. education secretary, school-choice advocate Betsy DeVos. Vouchers are typically considered a cause of the Republican Party, which holds a supermajority in Tennessee. The fact that vouchers have been kept at bay in the state shows how the debate goes beyond partisan politics.
From the helm of education advocacy groups including the American Federation for Children and the Alliance for School Choice, DeVos, a staunch Republican, has contributed millions of dollars to state legislative candidates in favor of vouchers, including several in Tennessee.
The state actually already has one voucher law in place. This month, eight private schools began accepting public money to educate special education students, giving the State Department of Education its first taste of overseeing a voucher program.
Leaders of Jubilee Catholic Schools are lobbying for vouchers. They say the program would boost enrollment in their network of elementary and middle schools established in 1999 by the Dioceses of Memphis to serve low-income students.
While Memphis would be most impacted by a voucher law, leaders of many of the city’s private schools aren’t necessarily interested in participating in the program.
Indiana has the nation’s largest voucher program, although the original proposal, like Dunn’s bill in Tennessee, focused primarily on low-income students. Now, Indiana’s program serves middle-class students as well, from families that likely would have opted for private school with or without public money. Student achievement in Indiana has largely been unaffected by vouchers. One study found that students who switched to private schools through the program might actually be doing worse in math.