Tennessee Senate Approves School Voucher Bill

Low-income students in the four largest counties of the state could use a voucher to go to a different school – even a private or a religious school, under a bill passed Thursday in the Tennessee Senate.

Memphis Republican Brian Kelsey says his “Equal Opportunity Scholarship” bill will give low-income students in Metro Nashville and in Shelby, Hamilton and Knox Counties the option of going to another school.

“They can take these scholarships to whatever, public, charter school, whatever, parochial school, whatever, independent school or whatever public school within their own system that they want to go to.”

Democrat Andy Berke was one of the 10 votes against the measure. He says the bill leaves the state with bad choices.

“One is that we demand accountability from private schools and religious schools, and start telling them what to do. The other choice, which is what this bill makes, is to say, that there’s no accountability, and we’re giving them state and public dollars, and they can do whatever they want with them.”

The Coalition of Large School Systems – exactly those counties affected by the bill — has lobbied against such voucher proposals.

It’s the first voucher bill to pass in Tennessee, and it was Kelsey’s fifth try at the measure.

The bill passed the state Senate along party lines, 18 to 10, with most Democrats voting against it. The House version is to be taken up in the Education Subcommittee next Wednesday.

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The bill is SB 485 Kelsey/HB 388 Dunn, the “Equal Opportunity Scholarship Act.”

The amendment expands the bill to cover the four largest counties in the state – state law ordinarily identifies such choices by population references. This one includes Hamilton, Knox, Davidson and Shelby counties.

Kelsey says the bill carefully singles out only low-income students to take advantage of the voucher.

“You do have to be a low income student eligible for free and reduced lunch to be eligible for the equal opportunity voucher.”

Kelsey says his bill is different from most because only half of the government money goes with the student – the public school system keeps the other half to cover fixed costs, like classrooms, that remain even if the student leaves. Legislative staff says state and local dollars funding the average student in Tennessee total about $11,000. The school to which the student migrates would get a little over $5,000, all paid by the state.

This would be the first voucher system adopted by Tennessee, but Kelsey says the bill is modeled on legislation passed in several other states and cities.

He says the state of Indiana passed a similar measure the same day the Tennessee state Senate voted for his bill.

“There are a number of states …Florida has had this program passed. Versions exist in Milwaukee, in Cleveland, in D.C., Colorado, Arizona, Oklahoma.”

Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey says the bill is a first step, focusing on the counties with the worst schools.

“Because that’s where the overwhelming majority of the failing schools are in the state of Tennessee. As a matter of fact, of the 17 failing high schools in the state of Tennessee that have been on the list for five years or longer, all of them are in those big four. So I think that’s where it’s needed most. We’ll work on the four largest, if it works well there, we’ll expand it statewide.”

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