TN Voucher Proposal Coalition Builds, Faces Strong Opposition

Published November 18, 2011

A Tennessee lawmaker is preparing a refined version of voucher proposal that passed the state Senate before stalling in a House legislative committee early in 2011.

Senator Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown) has agreed to add stronger public accountability measures to his Equal Opportunity Scholarship Act, which would make education vouchers available to more than 200,000 low-income students in the state’s largest urban school districts.

“Many are unsatisfied with their current education options and see Equal Opportunity Scholarships as a way to choose the best form of education that meets their child’s unique needs,” said Ryan Turbeville, policy and outreach coordinator at the Beacon Center of Tennessee.

Gov. Bill Haslam (R) has said he will delay taking a position on the bill until the end of the year. The Davidson, Knox, Hamilton, and Shelby County school districts—where students would be eligible—have passed resolutions objecting to vouchers and hired lobbyists to fight the proposal.

Revising Accountability
Under the 2012 version of the bill, scholarship recipients would have to take the standardized Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program test, and private schools would have to report the results. 

“Almost all of our quality private schools in Tennessee are already administering the test, so that will be acceptable,” Kelsey said.

Groups such as the Tennessee School Boards Association and the Tennessee Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, continue to lead opposition to vouchers. Testifying at a House Education Subcommittee study session on Nov. 1, voucher opponents repeated claims the program would not improve student academic outcomes while draining money from public schools.

“These were hypothetical arguments 20 years ago, but we now know for a fact that opportunity scholarships in other states have increased student performance in public schools,” said Kelsey. “Now that we have data from other programs, we are at an advantage over pioneer states.”

Rebutting Opposition
School choice backers also refute the claims about negative fiscal impacts on public schools. Under Kelsey’s legislation, half the state’s local and state per-student formula would follow the student to a private school of his choice, about $4,000 in Nashville.

“In areas where scholarships have been utilized they have actually led to cost savings for public schools because those schools lose the cost of having to educate the child yet retain a portion of the funding,” Turbeville said. 

Shelby County Board of Education member Kenneth Whalum joined the Catholic Diocese and private school groups in testifying for vouchers at the November study session. Whalum refused to sign a Board resolution opposing the Act.

In late October, some legislators visited Miami Christian School, a scholarship school in Florida, to see how that state’s private education tuition tax credit program is faring.

Kelsey regularly meets potential new supporters for his proposal, he said, including new support from the grassroots group TEA for Education. “I feel confident our coalition will expand by January,” he said, referring to the start of the 2012 legislative session.

Governor Weighing Decision
Turbeville said he believes support for private school choice is growing within the state, expressing optimism that Haslam is reviewing the proposal. Haslam spokesman Dave Smith said the governor’s policy staff is researching the issue and findings from other states should the bill pass the House Education Committee.

“Our number one thought is keeping momentum going in education reform,” Smith said. “Education is tied directly to job creation, and our number one priority is job creation.”

In the four districts where students would get vouchers, one in five students does not graduate from high school, and at most half the students in any grade and any subject rate “proficient” on state tests, on average. And when compared with the National Assessment of Educational Progress, Tennessee’s measure of “proficiency” actually ranks “below basic.”

Haslam’s public neutrality on the school choice proposal has not deterred its Senate sponsor.

“I am pleased that the governor is giving this a full and fair hearing, and his careful consideration,” Kelsey said. “I hope to get his support on this bill.”

Image by Elizabeth Albert.