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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

Tennessee lawmakers take first step toward school vouchers

In their first discussion of tuition vouchers this year, Tennessee lawmakers insisted Tuesday that the state can succeed where others have failed, and easily advanced a proposal that would start a five-year pilot program in Memphis.

The voice vote came after members of a House education subcommittee heard voucher opponents cite recent research showing that vouchers in other states have led to worse academic outcomes for students. But again and again, lawmakers said that Tennessee could be different.

“There are some instances where vouchers haven’t worked, but we’ve never tested them in Tennessee,” said Rep. Harry Brooks, the Knoxville Republican sponsoring the bill.

“We are Tennessee,” added Rep. Eddie Smith, another Knoxville Republican. “We are not Louisiana, we are not Florida, we are not anyone else. We can design a system that works for Tennessee.”

Rep. John DeBerry, a Memphis Democrat who has passionately advocated for vouchers, was dismissive of the studies. “Please, let’s not throw big-picture numbers around,” he said. “This is about one set of parents deciding about one student.”

What is not working, the lawmakers agreed, are public schools in Memphis. While lauding gains in recent years, they said too many students remain trapped in failing schools.

The vote was the first on vouchers in Tennessee since last winter, when the legislature almost passed a similar bill. The sponsor of that measure, Rep. Bill Dunn of Knoxville, said he didn’t have enough votes and pulled it at the last minute on the House floor. This year, Dunn is carrying the same bill, which impacts other urban districts, as well as Memphis.

Rep. Mark White, a Memphis Republican who chairs the subcommittee, said Tuesday evening that lawmakers seem poised to rally this year behind Brooks’ proposal, which is being carried in the Senate by Brian Kelsey, a Republican from Germantown, a bedroom community of Memphis.

The Senate Education Committee is scheduled to discuss both bills on Wednesday.

Tennessee’s voucher proposals are targeting schools already struggling with enrollment. Read why that matters.

Supporters argue that vouchers provide school choice that empowers parents and leads to better academic outcomes. Opponents fear that diverting money to private schools hurts public schools, and that a lack of regulation of private schools means that students accepting vouchers won’t necessarily get a better education.

The bill would cap the voucher program at 5,000 students, and provide them with tuition vouchers worth about $7,000 annually. After five years, lawmakers would decide whether to halt or expand the program, depending on students’ test scores. However, Brooks said he is still hammering out details around comparing students in public schools to their counterparts who accept vouchers.

DeBerry said the proposal might not be perfect — but that few policies are. “At some point it has to start so we can find out what works, what does not work,” he said.


The Memphis Democrat also projected that few students would actually opt to participate, meaning public schools would not lose as much funding as its leaders fear. “A lot of folks are not going to put in the time, the effort,” DeBerry said, “but for the handful of parents that do, why not give them that right?”

Indeed, only 35 out of 20,000 eligible students are participating in a voucher-like special education program, the first of its kind in Tennessee, which launched in January.