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A bill that would have piloted vouchers in Memphis dies before the session starts

Rep. Harry Brooks, the House sponsor of a proposal to pilot vouchers in Memphis, says he won't bring the bill back in 2018.
Rep. Harry Brooks, the House sponsor of a proposal to pilot vouchers in Memphis, says he won't bring the bill back in 2018.
Marta W. Aldrich

A bill that would pilot a private school voucher program in Memphis is officially dead this year.

Rep. Harry Brooks, the Knoxville Republican who sponsored the bill with Sen. Brian Kelsey of Germantown, said Friday he won’t advance it in the House. Kelsey announced earlier this week that he was giving up on the bill in the Senate.

“The interest in the House is not there,” Brooks told Chalkbeat. “If the Senate is not going to proceed with it, there’s no need to move it in the House. It’s just an exercise in futility.”

Brooks’ decision ends a years-long effort to allow some Tennessee parents to use public money to pay for private school tuition — just as U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has focused national attention on voucher programs. Previous versions calling for a statewide program for students from low-income families met fierce opposition from state lawmakers from rural and urban areas, forcing sponsors to narrow the scope of the program. The latest proposal only applied to Memphis.

But unlike previous years when vouchers were stalled during the legislative session, this proposal — carried over from last year — lost steam before the 2018 session began.

Brooks said starting over with a new Senate sponsor would have little chance of success.

“It’s had its shot with this particular legislative group,” Brooks said of the bill, adding he hopes the next governor and lawmakers elected in late 2018 will take up the measure again.

This year, the proposal reached as far as the Senate Finance Committee and a House finance subcommittee before Brooks moved to delay a vote until 2018. At the time, he cited the need to work out details about how private schools would be held accountable for student learning.

But many House representatives — from Memphis and beyond — warned the bill would cripple the financial stability of their school systems, a sentiment echoed Monday by Bartlett Superintendent David Stephens just before Kelsey announced his reversal.

Tennessee’s legislature reconvenes on Jan. 9.

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