Memphis Parents Travel To Capitol By The Busload For School Voucher Rally

At an event organized by the libertarian Beacon Center of Tennessee, attendees had yellow scarves waiting for them in their seats. While the event was meant to mark national "school choice week," vouchers were the topic of the day. Credit: Blake Farmer / WPLN

At an event organized by the libertarian Beacon Center of Tennessee, attendees had yellow scarves waiting for them in their seats. While the event was meant to mark national “school choice week,” vouchers were the topic of the day. Credit: Blake Farmer / WPLN

Parents wearing yellow scarves filled an auditorium near the Tennessee capitol Tuesday to advocate for school vouchers. Many traveled from Memphis to ask for help paying private school tuition.

Karen Nelson already pays more than $5,000 a year for her son to go to a Catholic school in Memphis. She acknowledges that it’s her choice to be in private schools, but she says families like hers make sacrifices.

“Even though we’re making it happen, if there is some assistance that would help, I am for it,” she said.

Nelson rode to Nashville on one of 13 buses organized by the Memphis diocese, which oversees more than two-dozen private schools.

It’s unlikely anyone who can afford to pay tuition would be eligible for a school voucher under Governor Bill Haslam’s proposal, which is limited to low-income families attending low-performing schools. But other lawmakers want to expand the program with a bill to allow higher income families to apply for vouchers that are left over.

Haslam addressed the hundreds gathered at War Memorial Auditorium, though he hardly mentioned his own voucher plans.

Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey also spoke to the crowd. He was much more explicit about his support of vouchers. The Blountville Republican wants a statewide program with fewer income restrictions. However, he’s been assuring rural superintendents they have nothing to fear. 

“Their exact words were, ‘this may start out as a limited program but then go statewide just like charter schools did.’ And I ask them, ‘how did that effect northeast Tennessee?’”

There’s still only one charter school in all of East Tennessee. And Ramsey says he expects few families outside of Memphis and Nashville would use vouchers either, even if they qualified.

“In areas where I live, where people are satisfied with their public schools, it will have little or no effect,” he said.

Big-city school systems are in unanimous opposition to vouchers. Administrators fear the money would be diverted from their districts.

Memphis-area lawmakers are split on vouchers. Republicans are supportive. And while Rep. John DeBerry (D-Memphis) is sponsoring his own voucher legislation, most Democrats are opposed.

“Our community faces many challenges that can and must be addressed with education,” Rep. Johnnie Turner (D-Memphis) said in a statement. “The idea that we should privatize education as the best way to meet those challenges is wrong on the facts, and a real threat to the future of our community.”

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