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Tennessee voucher bill stalls as lawmakers strip TNReady testing requirement

Rep. Harry Brooks, who is sponsoring a bill to pilot school vouchers in Memphis, answers questions from Rep. Mike Stewart during a House committee meeting on March 29.
Rep. Harry Brooks, who is sponsoring a bill to pilot school vouchers in Memphis, answers questions from Rep. Mike Stewart during a House committee meeting on March 29.
Grace Tatter

A proposal to create a school voucher program in Memphis is losing some momentum while lawmakers tussle over the issue of testing.

After sailing through several committees in Tennessee’s General Assembly, the bill stalled Wednesday for a second straight week in the House Government and Operations Committee.

The panel voted narrowly to amend the bill so that voucher participants could take tests in their private schools that are different from what their counterparts take in public schools. But lawmakers stopped short of sending the amended bill to their finance committee after Rep. Mike Stewart, who opposes vouchers, moved to adjourn.

That leaves the measure at least three committee votes and two floor votes away from passage as the legislative session begins to wind down.

The Government and Operations Committee cannot kill a bill, only give it a positive, neutral or negative recommendation — so opponents’ only line of defense is to stall.

Whether voucher students should take the state’s standardized test, TNReady, has become a point of contention among lawmakers who support letting families use public money to pay for private tuition. Sponsors anxious to avoid past failures of voucher legislation have viewed the state testing requirement as a way to make this year’s bill more palatable to opponents.

But Wednesday’s vote to amend the bill upset some voucher supporters, including the sponsor, who believe that requiring voucher students to take TNReady is the best way to determine whether the pilot program is working. Others say private schools should be able to choose whether their students should take the Tennessee test or a national assessment.

Leaders from the Jubilee Catholic Schools, a network of nine Memphis schools that has been the most vocal in their desire to accept vouchers, have said they don’t mind administering Tennessee’s test.

The amendment was brought by Rep. Jeremy Faison, a Republican from Crosby in East Tennessee, who chairs the committee.

“I would say you’re turning that Jubilee school into a public school,” Faison said of the TNReady requirement.

But Rep. Harry Brooks, a Knoxville Republican and the bill’s sponsor, voiced concerns about stripping the requirement.

“Tennessee testing is the best way to compare apples to apples,” he said.

Sen. Brian Kelsey, the bill’s co-sponsor from Germantown, has expressed concerns that disagreement around testing would sink the bill. Kelsey said last week that he would prefer private schools have flexibility around testing, but that he also understands why some policymakers would only support the proposal if vouchers students are required to take public school tests.

“I hope that this testing issue is not being used … to sink the legislation this year,” he said. “I fear that may be the case.”

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