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School-Vouchers Bill Passes TN Senate, 24-8

Big step forward for school choice, but House is where it’s gotten hung up in past years

The Tennessee Senate has once again passed a measure that establishes a program of “opportunity scholarships” for kids to escape perennially underachieving schools

This is the third time such legislation has cleared the upper chamber since 2011, but it’s yet to pass the full Legislature. Gov. Bill Haslam said Monday that he expects a school voucher bill will likely make it to his desk this year.

voucher 1 senate 2015Senate Bill 999, the “Tennessee Choice and Opportunity Scholarship Act,” won Monday evening on a 24-8 vote.

The Act sets out a process by which students in districts with the bottom 5 percent lowest-performing schools become eligible for vouchers to in turn spend on a private education.

The scholarship amounts are estimated to run a little under $7,000 per student. About 5,000 scholarships would be awarded in 2015, then rise to 7,500 the following year, 10,000 the year after that and in 2018 “and thereafter” level off at 20,000 per year.

If fewer than the total number of eligible students applies for the vouchers, then the remaining scholarships will be awarded to low-income children in the state’s larger-population counties — Davidson, Hamilton, Knox, Jackson-Madison and Shelby.

Two of the General Assembly’s most vocal advocates of school vouchers, Brian Kelsey of Germantown and Dolores Gresham of Somerville, have in the past argued for a more liberal allotment of scholarships than what’s outlined in SB999. However, both said they’re eager this year to see the Legislature pass something in order to throw an educational lifeline to students in need.

“These low-income children desperately need our help right away,” said Kelsey.

Gresham, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, described the school choice legislation as “a rescue mission” for students “imprisoned by a pervasive mediocrity.”

“What we are doing here is rescuing the most vulnerable, poor children from chronically low-performing schools, where they are imprisoned in these schools with no options.” Gresham said.

When concerns were voiced by opponents of the legislation that it would siphon off funding from already struggling school systems, Kelsey argued that the Act will actually result in more money being left in the district on a per pupil basis than under the status quo. He said that of the total amount that districts receive in funding for each student, in the neighborhood of $2,000 would be retained in the public system for each child that won one of the private-school scholarships.

“So while you lose a whole child, you only lose a portion of the funding that was associated with that child,” Kelsey said.

Opponents of the legislation included four Democrats and four Republicans. Reginald Tate of Memphis was the only Democrat to vote in favor of the bill.

Minority Leader Lee Harris, D-Memphis, and Democratic Caucus Chairman Jeff Yarbro of Nashville each said now is precisely the wrong time to contemplate pulling any amount of money from the public school system.

The General Assembly’s Fiscal Review director estimated that “the shift of state and required local BEP funding from…local education agencies to the non-public participating schools is estimated as follows: $16,570,000 in FY15-16; $25,473,800 in FY16-17; $34,815,000 in FY17-18; and an amount exceeding $69,630,000 in FY18-19 and subsequent years.

Yarbro questioned the whether the voucher system would stand up to legal scrutiny, given that a number of districts don’t believe the state is adequately funding public schools under the state’s Basic Education Program.

“Numerous schools districts around the state are looking at this, we have had some that have already filed suit, and this is exactly the kind of scenario in which voucher programs have been found to violate state constitutions in other states,” said Yarbro.

“The timing of this I don’t really think could be worse,” he said.

Harris said that if the legislation ultimately becomes law, it will result in perpetual fiscal headaches and confusion for local public school officials.

“Our public school administrators will be forced to lurch from financial fire to financial fire from year to year,” said Harris. “They will be forced to deal with enrollment issues, they will be forced to deal with financial planning issues, and the one issue that will fall on the financial back burner for these public school administrators is student achievement planning.”

Frank Niceley, a Republican from Strawberry Plains who voted against SB999, worried that private schools with a religious bent might at some point have to compromise their principles or curriculum down the line.

“Is there anything to prevent the strings from coming later?” Niceley said. “That is the thing that worries me about this whole bill.”

Kelsey responded that nobody will force private schools to take voucher money. “The No. 1 most important safeguard that is in the bill addressing this very issue is that the schools that want to participate in this program do so voluntarily,” he said. “They do not have to participate in this program and they can leave whenever they want to leave.”

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