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State Rep. Bill Dunn of Knoxville (center) looks straight ahead after tabling his voucher bill in 2016.

State Rep. Bill Dunn of Knoxville (center) looks straight ahead after tabling his voucher bill in 2016.

One is not like the other: Memphis is the difference in competing school voucher bills

Two school tuition voucher bills are poised to make their way through the Tennessee legislature this year, the key difference being that one applies only to Memphis.

And those geographic boundaries rankle many voucher opponents and advocates alike. 

A bill authored by Sen. Brian Kelsey, a Republican from the Memphis suburb of Germantown, limits its scope to districts with at least 30 schools in the bottom 5 percent. The only district that qualifies is Shelby County, home to the state’s largest public school system.

The bill sponsored by Rep. Bill Dunn, a Republican from Knoxville, applies to any district with schools in the bottom 5 percent. Right now, those include Shelby County, Metropolitan Nashville, Hamilton County, Knox County and Jackson-Madison public schools.

“Forty percent of all education legislation seems to be about Shelby County Schools,” said Rep. Roger Kane, who last year co-sponsored Dunn’s voucher bill. “That’s wrong.”

Rep. Antonio Parkinson, a Memphis Democrat, disagrees with Kane on vouchers, but agrees that the legislation shouldn’t target only Memphis.

“The fact that they singled Memphis out is honestly an insult,” he said of Kelsey’s bill. “There are schools and children that may not be performing to the extent that they should be in every county in Tennessee; in Knox County, Hamilton, Nashville and Shelby. … If you’re going to do something like (vouchers), be fair and do it statewide.”

Dunn’s proposal, filed on Wednesday, is nearly identical to the one that last year made it further than any voucher bill ever introduced in the House. The legislation originally came out of a task force spearheaded by Gov. Bill Haslam. Last year, Dunn pulled the bill before it came to a vote on the House floor, but only after it was amended so that Memphis would serve as the pilot for the program.

Dunn said Wednesday that it’s important that the bill isn’t limited to one district. “My bill would help more children,” he said.

Similarly, Kelsey’s bill does not limit vouchers to Memphis in perpetuity, but uses the city as an experiment.

Sen. Reginald Tate, a Memphis Democrat and Kelsey’s co-sponsor, said his home city isn’t being unfairly singled out.

“It’s not necessarily that I’m in support of (vouchers), but I don’t see a reason to block it. … I don’t even think we have enough (private school) seats for it to make much of a difference,” he said. “I know people say, ‘Hey, we’re the guinea pigs, we’re the freckle-faced child; you make us try everything…’ but I don’t think it’s going to be that detrimental at all. I’m not picking on Shelby County.”

Vouchers are taxpayer-backed scholarships that parents could use to send their kids to private school.

Proponents say vouchers drive competition, and that competition makes all schools better and increase student achievement. They argue that anything would be better than the current options for students who attend Tennessee’s lowest-performing schools.

Opponents say there’s no guarantee that a private school accepting a voucher would be of better quality than a public school, especially since private schools are less regulated.

Gearing up for Tennessee’s voucher fight? Here are eight stories to read.