Tennessee currently has one school choice program, an education savings account that grants parents of special-needs students with an Individuated Education Account access to a portion of the money allocated for their child’s public education, to use on educational alternatives.
State Sen. Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown) introduced the Opportunity Scholarship Pilot Program (Senate Bill 161) in January. The bill, which passed out of the House Education Administration and Planning Subcommittee in March, would institute a private school voucher pilot program in Shelby County, which includes Memphis.
Beginning in the 2018–19 school year, low-income students enrolled in the bottom 5 percent of public schools, determined based on academic performance, who qualified for free and reduced-price lunches would be eligible for vouchers. The program would be evaluated for five years to determine whether it’s design is successful.
SB 161 has been referred to the Government Operations Committee, where, as of press time, it remains under consideration.
‘A Lot of Momentum’
Kelsey says he’s optimistic about the bill’s prospects in the current session.
“I’m highly encouraged that this year all 14 legislators who have voted on the bill [in committee] have voted yes, so that’s thrilling,” Kelsey said. “So far, we have a lot of momentum, and I feel like this is the year the bill will finally pass the House. The House sponsor this year is the chairman of the Education Committee, and that has helped tremendously as he’s lent his expertise on this subject. I am cautiously optimistic that this will be the year.”
Kelsey says this year’s bill represents a new approach.
“This has never been proposed as a pilot program before,” Kelsey said. “The state House has been reluctant to pass the legislation, so this year we’re just going for a pilot program. It’s time once and for all to figure out if this program works, and I think this pilot program will show that school choice can and will have a positive influence on children’s lives.”
Rural Superintendents’ Influence
Kelsey says he narrowed the scope of the bill this year because school superintendents in rural districts have pressured legislators to fight choice.
“I think that rural school superintendents have done a disservice to the state by trying to stop our urban areas from getting access to school choice,” Kelsey said. “Those rural superintendents have been quite influential, especially over rural, Republican House members, and that’s quite a shame. For a lot of rural House members, the largest employer in their district is the school system, so the opinion of their school superintendent obviously weighs heavily on their decision-making, even though it’s not good for moving forward all the students in the state, especially those students in the urban areas.”
Pressing for ESAs
Lindsay Boyd, director of policy at the Beacon Center of Tennessee, says Kelsey’s bill is just one of several, including another voucher bill and a bill to establish education savings accounts (ESAs), that could provide increased school choice for Tennessee’s children.
“The Beacon Center has long been a staunch supporter of any form of educational choice, … so we’re cheering on every bill that’s been introduced,” Boyd said. “While we have been pushing the ESA program as a fresh take on educational choice in Tennessee, we’ve been extremely supportive of Sen. Kelsey’s voucher proposal and believe that a voucher program and an ESA program can coexist and complement each other fairly well in Tennessee.
“We’re hoping that many or all of the bills that are out there will pass, and we’ll be doing what we can to ensure that each bill has the best chance of making it to the House and Senate floors,” Boyd said.
Boyd says the Beacon Center favors universal ESAs for which all K–12 Tennessee students would be eligible.
“You have these various approaches out there now that are giving legislators the opportunity to really think about the issue and where they really stand,” Boyd said. “Do they think it’s the right of every child and every family to chart their educational path, or do they think it should be limited to just a few students who are dealing with unique needs or struggling in low-income families or attending a failing school?”
Elizabeth BeShears ([email protected]) writes from Trussville, Alabama.