Tennessee Rep. Bill Dunn (R-Knoxville) says he plans to reintroduce a bill to bring school vouchers to the state in 2017.
Currently, only Tennessee students in special-needs programs have access to a state-sponsored school choice program.
Schools vouchers give parents access to the funds allocated for their child’s public school education to use at another public school or at a private school, if they choose to enroll their kids elsewhere.
The Tennessee Senate has passed voucher legislation three times since 2011, but the bills never made it through the state’s House of Representatives. Eight new Republican lawmakers and two Democrats were elected to the House in the November 2016 election. Republicans now make up a supermajority in both chambers.
Dunn sponsored House Bill 1049 in 2016, which would have granted private school scholarships to students in the state’s lowest-performing schools. The legislation ultimately stalled in the House.
Regarding the proposed voucher bill for 2017, Dunn told The Tennessean in November 2016, “We won’t know until we start moving the bill, but it is encouraging that people are starting to put the kids before the bureaucracy.”
Minimal Democratic Support
Dunn says he has trouble getting support for his voucher bill from Democrats.
“The idea of vouchers and school choice actually came from Democrat areas, but then Democrats said, ‘Well, teachers vote and kids don’t,’ so the party has taken a very hard line against it,” Dunn told School Reform News. “So, it’s kind of hard for some of my Democrat colleagues to step out and support it. In fact, I’m only up to one. Then you have a lot of representatives who get a call or resolution from their school board saying they’re against vouchers, and there’s not a natural constituency on the other side.”
Dunn says his bill will mostly benefit urban areas.
“Most of the areas where this is going to benefit and be used the most are concentrated in the cities,” Dunn said. “My colleagues who are from a very rural area where they don’t even have a private school, some of [them] bend to political pressure, and they won’t even help a limited bill that will really focus on big, urban centers. At the same time, there are people who have stood up and shown political courage and said they’re going to do what’s right for children. I applaud them, and they’re my heroes.”
Explaining School Choice
Dunn says when encouraging people to support school choice, he points out how the concept applies in other areas of life.
“When I go and talk to a group like a Rotary Club, I’ll get them going along with me by starting out asking, ‘What if there was a bill that said for higher education, we’re going to get bureaucrats to draw circles on a map?'” Dunn said. “If you’re from Knoxville, you have to go to the University of Tennessee–Knoxville. If you’re from Chattanooga, you have to go to the University of Chattanooga. In Rome County, you have to go to Rome County Community College.’ Everyone says that’s just the dumbest idea, and they go down the list of why it doesn’t work that well.”
Unleashing Academic Potential
Hannah Cox, outreach coordinator at Tennessee’s Beacon Center, says education choice would benefit all children in the state.
“In Tennessee, school choice is only an option for families with students receiving a special-needs education,” Cox said. “While this is an important first step, thousands of students across our state are still waiting for the opportunity to unleash their academic potential. We believe that parents should have the power to determine the best educational path for their child, and we will continue to support school choice policies in our state.”
Elizabeth BeShears ([email protected]) writes from Trussville, Alabama.