A pilot program that would have given some poor parents in Memphis the money to transfer their children to private schools stalled in a Senate committee last week, even as it moved with support from Shelby County Democrats in the House.
The bill would have taken Tennessee a step closer to expanding school choice, a growing issue of debate as the state increases its number of charter schools that take on students from struggling families or with poor grades.
“I think that any special interest group that wants to come forward and oppose this should be ashamed, should be ashamed that they’re not looking out for these children,” said Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, who presented the bill before the Senate Education Committee.
“They should be ashamed that they’re putting their interests ahead of allowing these children to receive the opportunities that they deserve. They deserve a quality education, too, and they shouldn’t be punished because they live in a poor neighborhood,” he said.
The pilot program would target three failing schools in Memphis — an elementary, middle and a high school. Parents with an income up to two and one half times the federal free or reduced lunch benchmark could be given a scholarship to remove their child from the failing school to another institution.
“A parental choice scholarship program would put decision-making back in the hands of parents, allowing them to take control of their children’s education,” according to a policy brief from the Tennessee Center for Policy Research, a free-market think tank based in Nashville.
The bill, called the “Parental Choice Scholarship Act,” got hung up on a 3-3 vote Wednesday. Committee members voted along strict party lines — Republicans for and Democrats against. The measure needed five total “yes” votes to pass, according to Senate Rules.
Three members of the committee opted out of the vote. Representatives abstaining included Memphis Democrat Reginald Tate along with Republicans Rusty Crowe, of Johnson City, and Bill Ketron, from Murfreesboro.
The measure would have pulled as much as $3.9 million from Memphis public schools via vouchers and allowed low-income parents to direct that money to charter, private or other public schools where they would prefer their children attend.
Opponents of the measure balked at that.
“This is about those $4 million that will be taken out of Memphis City schools,” said Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga. “Accordingly, I’ll be casting a vote no, and instead thinking that there are ways we can be moving education forward rather than backward.”
The whole concept behind this bill is taking public education dollars and sending them to private and parochial schools, according to the state teachers’ union, which is adamantly against the school-choice bill. The union argues it is unconstitutional because it would give money to Catholic or other private religious schools.
“Where choice comes in, there’s an old saying: ‘If you don’t want your child to swim in a public swimming pool, fine. But don’t expect the government to build a pool in your back yard,’” said Jerry Winters, director of government relations for the Tennessee Education Association.
The measure will stay in committee, however members do not expect to meet again this legislative session.
A partner bill circulating in the House of Representatives had better success. It was OK’d in the Government Operations Committee Wednesday on a 9-4 vote and now heads to the Education Committee.
“Whether this bill passes or not…there are a lot of issues about education that we’ve got to talk about,” said Rep. John DeBerry, D-Memphis, who is sponsoring the bill in the House. “And we’ve got to talk about the parents’ right to send their children to schools where they know they can be educated, rather than where a bunch of pencil pushers want to send them because their numbers aren’t working out very well.”
The purpose of the bill is to get children out of failing schools, and to give parents who can’t afford it the ability to send their children to better schools, said Rep. Susan Lynn, R-Mt. Juliet, who voted for the bill.
“It’s not dealing from the outside in, it is really dealing from the inside out — and giving them the opportunity that if their families want to get them out of the school, and have another opportunity for them, it is giving them that advantage,” she said.
Voting against the bill were Democrats Karen Camper of Memphis, Lois. DeBerry of Memphis, House Democratic party Leader Gary Odom of Nashville and Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner of Old Hickory.
Memphis Democrats Mike Kernel, G.A. Hardaway and Barbara Cooper joined Republicans on the committee who voted in favor of it.