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VOL. 41 | NO. 16 | Friday, April 21, 2017

Pilot voucher program for Shelby postponed in House until next year

By Sam Stockard

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Questions about student testing within a proposed pilot voucher bill affecting Shelby County Schools forced the bill’s sponsor to postpone it until next year.

Rep. Harry Brooks, R-Knoxville, sent the bill to the first calendar of the 2018 House Finance, Ways and Means Subcommittee on Wednesday morning, telling lawmakers he needs more time to work out details in the legislation. One of those questions dealt with the effective date of the voucher program and the other with an amendment enabling private schools that would accept public students to opt out of state-required testing, the TNReady.

“The question really boiled down to the high school end-of-course (test), and that was the one folks wanted me to look at,” Brooks said.

The measure pitted Shelby County lawmakers against each other this session, with Germantown Republican Sen. Brian Kelsey spearheading the measure and Memphis Democratic Rep. John DeBerry co-sponsoring the House version. Sen. Reginald Tate co-sponsored the Senate version as well.

The proposed five-year pilot program for systems with more than 30 schools on the state’s Priority list for failing to meet minimum standards would enable a limited number of children to receive state funding to pay tuition at private schools.

The measure would allow 2,500 scholarships in the first year and up to 5,000 each year through 2022-23. The bill’s fiscal impact is projected at $8.8 million initially and $18.6 million in the final year.

Rep. Antonio Parkinson, an outspoken critic of the legislation, said he had mixed feelings about the postponement because such a move could take people’s focus off of the measure until January when it could be thrust back to the forefront.

“Honestly, I would like it to be rolled on out of here,” Parkinson said.

The Memphis Democrat said he felt schools receiving tax dollars and public school students should be required to administer the same tests as public schools. But he also speculated that Brooks might have postponed the measure because he couldn’t muster enough votes in the finance subcommittee to send it forward.

Republican state Rep. Ron Lollar of Bartlett said Brooks didn’t have enough votes to pass the bill in the finance subcommittee.

“There was a lot of people who came together who understood the over ramifications,” Lollar said. “They understood it may be pointed now at Shelby County, but in the future, when (expansion) happens, some of the smaller school systems will suffer regardless of what they say.”

The bill has been roundly criticized throughout Shelby County with the County Commission and all local school boards voting to oppose it.

Parkinson said he also received information from the County Commissioners Association showing Shelby County could face a $47.30 property tax increase in its $160.58 rate if vouchers were to be offered in the county. The association showed property tax rate increases statewide, according to the information provided to Parkinson.

Rep. G.A. Hardaway, another vocal critic of the voucher bill, said it could continue “morphing” into 2018. But no matter how it changes, it will discriminate against students in the pilot program because they will be removed from the authority of the Shelby County Commission and state education rules as well as those who remain in traditional schools because funding will be shorted.

“You’re forcing them at that point to do more with less. That’s been an issue for any number of educational lawsuits over the decades since 1954,” said Hardaway, a Memphis Democrat. “You’ve got to have fair and equitable funding in order to have one of the essential components of having equal education.”

The legislation has problems on several fronts, he added, noting several studies show vouchers do not help students improve academically.

The bill’s sponsors, Kelsey and Brooks, contend children should be given a chance to enroll at a private school if the public school they’re attending falls into the state’s bottom 5 percent for performance. Kelsey could not be reached immediately for comment.

DeBerry said he was disappointed with the outcome because discussion about vouchers turns into a “contentious issue when all of us are trying to do the same thing and that is find ways of educating our children.”

He contends the system was broken a decade ago when the state started trying to reform education, and vouchers are only one of the programs that should be offered to parents and students.

“Whenever I argue for vouchers, I’m arguing for parental choice, which I think is an essential part of making this thing right. I’m not trying to hurt the teachers, I’m not trying to hurt the school, I’m not trying to break anybody,” DeBerry said.

Tate, a Memphis Democrat, said the delay will give sponsors and opponents time to work out differences.

Sam Stockard can be reached at sstockard44@gmail.com.