School Choice a Hot Topic at Legislators’ Conference

Tennessee lawmakers, who approved a slew of sweeping education reforms this spring, hinted this week at the Southern Legislative Conference that they’re not done yet.

The next battle appears to be over school choice.

“It is blatantly unfair that just because a parent doesn’t have the means that another parent might have, that they’re stuck in a failing school,” Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey told TNReport while attending the conference in Memphis, which has drawn lawmakers from 15 states. “I hope we’ll be able to pass that next year.”

The Senate passed a plan in April to offer low-income students in the state’s largest cities — Memphis, Nashville, Knoxville and Chattanooga — vouchers to put toward their education at another public school in the district, a charter school or private school.

But leadership in the House refused to advance the bill last session and instead parked the measure in a study committee over the summer. Legislators have yet to tackle that issue, also known as “equal opportunity scholarships.”

The reason for the holdup on the legislation was that House lawmakers weren’t entirely familiar or comfortable with the voucher concept, said Rep. Richard Montgomery, the chairman of the Education Committee. “We didn’t know the impact of what that type of legislation would be, and we need to know that before we start moving forward,” the Sevierville Republican said.

Sen. Brian Kelsey, who is leading the charge for school vouchers, contends that Republicans still have the political will to pass another wave of education reforms despite this year’s contentious debates over removing teachers unions’ collective bargaining leverage, lifting restrictions on charter schools and making teacher tenure harder to earn.

“This is not the time to sit on our laurels,” said Kelsey, R-Germantown. “I think once the House takes a look at equal opportunity scholarships in particular, they’re going to see how successful it’s been and how popular it is in other states.”

Kelsey’s been teaming up with Michelle Rhee, a controversial and vocal education reformer who won her claim to fame by putting in place a tougher evaluation system and firing dozens of teachers who didn’t meet standards while chancellor of the D.C. public schools. She’s the founder of Students First, a nonprofit seeking to mobilize a national movement to improve education by focusing on good teachers, school choice, smart spending and family involvement.

Rhee, a major proponent of school choice, recently moved to Nashville so her two children can be closer to their father, Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman.

“I think the most important thing with any kind of choice, whether it be vouchers, whether it be charter schools, home schools, it has to be around accountability. We have to make sure that the kids are meeting a minimum threshold in terms of their learning gains,” she advised a room full of lawmakers at the legislative conference Sunday.

Vouchers are the most contentious aspects of the school choice debate, said Margaret Raymond, director of the Center for Research on Educational Outcomes at Stanford University.

A lot of the disagreement is over whether taxpayer dollars should be used to support private schools, 80 percent of which nationally are religiously based, according to Raymond.

Another point of contention is giving families free reign to leave traditional public schools in favor of charter schools which will shift government funding from one part of the district to another.

After examining charter schools in 15 states and the District of Columbia, Raymond’s office found that 17 percent of them performed better than public schools. Another 46 percent reported the same academic achievement as their public school counterparts, while 37 percent were worse.

States that kept failing charter schools open longer were worse off than those that closed schools faster, according to the study.

“You have to think about the fact that in states where the results are really bad, it’s because there are schools that are open for years and years and years that do not have high performance and are not being addressed,” Raymond said.

Raymond is running numbers on Tennessee schools, but that data won’t be available for another six months, she said.

Memphis Rep. Lois DeBerry, formerly the Tennessee House speaker pro tem before Republicans swept Democrats to the sidelines, says she’s in favor of school choice and charter schools, but she’s not ready for the state to pass out vouchers — especially once charter school enrollment is opened to all students under the bill the legislature passed.

“I don’t think we need to pass any more reform right now. I think we’ve over-reformed, so I think we just need to see if it’s working,” she said.