School voucher bill DOA for 2018 legislative session?

State Sen. Brian Kelsey, a leading crusader for school voucher legislation that has failed in past years, says he won’t push the issue in the 2018 session, reports Clakbeat Tennessee.

“I listen to my community. Right now, there’s not enough parental support,” the Germantown Republican lawmaker told Chalkbeat after sharing the news with Shelby County’s legislative delegation.

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Lee calls for more school choice, says ‘receptions that entertain legislators’ should be stopped

Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Lee is calling for more school choice in Tennessee and an end to lobbyist-sponsored receptions for state legislators, reports the Associated Press.

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Democrat criticizes closed-door meeting of voucher advocates Kelsey ad DeVos

State Sen. Brian Kelsey, a leading advocate in so-unsuccessful efforts to establish a school voucher system in Tennessee, met behind closed doors Monday with U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, reports The Tennessean. Tennessee Democratic Party Chair Mary Mancini denounced the meeting and the participants.

The meeting was disclosed on the U.S. secretary of education’s website containing DeVos’ weekly schedule.

DeVos, a supporter of charter schools and using public funds to send children to private school, known as vouchers, is a frequent target for Democrats. Noting Kelsey has repeatedly introduced legislation to allow school vouchers, Mancini said, “Public schools in every ZIP code need to be fully funded, and privatization would stretch funding even thinner than it currently is, hurting schools in every part of the state.”

… In addition to Kelsey’s work on vouchers, Mancini also criticized his support for DeVos. In February, Kelsey stumped for DeVos while she was undergoing a tense confirmation process.

… “It seems clear that Senator Kelsey is pushing programs devised by the special interests funding his campaigns and supported by extremists like Secretary DeVos,” Mancini said. “Tennesseans deserve to know what this meeting was about and why Senator Kelsey continues to file legislation that would devastate our public schools.”

Kelsey and his legislative assistant did not respond to multiple requests for comment about the meeting with DeVos.

School voucher bill dies in House Budget Sub

This year’s leading school voucher bill, declared a “pilot project” that would apply only in Shelby County, died quietly in the House Budget Subcommittee Wednesday.

Rep. Harry Brooks, R-Knoxville, sponsor of HB126, officially put off further consideration until next year in the Budget Subcommittee. Voucher bills have failed repeatedly in the past six years and proponents had hoped that narrowing this year’s version to just Shelby County would change the tradition.

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Shelby-only voucher bill gets House committee approval

A school voucher bill that targets Shelby County only moved through its first major House panel Tuesday amid testy debate among Memphis-area representatives, reports the Times-Free Press.

Education Administration and Planning Committee members spent nearly two hours fighting over the measure (HB126), which creates a five-year pilot project in which poorer parents in low-performing schools can use public tax dollars to send their children to private and religious schools.

Then they passed the bill, sponsored by Rep. Harry Brooks, R-Memphis, the committee’s chairman. It now goes to other House panels. A similar bill is moving in the Senate. (Note: The bill itself was approved on voice vote; on an earlier key amendment backed by Brooks, the roll call vote was 11-5.)

Brooks’ bill retreats from the more ambitious, years-long effort by proponents to provide taxpayer-funded vouchers or “opportunity scholarships” to low-income students across Tennessee attending priority schools falling into the bottom 5 percent on academic performance.

Those previous efforts would have impacted Hamilton County, Knox County, Metro Nashville, Shelby County (Memphis) and Hardemann County.

But a version of the broader approach is in another bill that remains in committee.

Following the bill’s approval, Roy Herron, an attorney who represents Tennessee’s small school districts, said he’s concerned that if the voucher bill is approved for the Shelby County school system, other rural and urban systems like Hamilton’s will be under threat of similar treatment.

“Memphis is not Las Vegas,” said Herron, a former state senator. “What happens in Memphis won’t stay in Memphis.”

Proponents like to characterize vouchers as “opportunity scholarships,” saying they give parents with children “trapped” in failing public schools more choice. Critics say the loss of money is a harpoon into the side of public education.

Fiscal note estimates Shelby County to lose $18M in funding with voucher bill

A bill to set up a school voucher system would mean loss of about $18 million per year in state funding for schools in Shelby County, the only place that the measure would apply in a measure sponsored by Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, and Rep. Harry Brooks, R-Knoxville.

The estimate is included in the fiscal note for HB126. The Commercial Appeal has comments from Kelsey:

Kelsey said Monday the funding loss for SCS would be proportional to the number of students the district would no longer have to educate. The bill also only diverts state money, and requires students using a voucher to be counted toward the enrollment of their local school district. That means the district still retains local funds for them.

“The beauty is they no longer have to educate the child, and yet they’re still getting paid some money,” Kelsey said.

Kelsey’s bill has support, including from co-sponsors Rep. Harry Brooks, R-Knoxville and Sen. Reginald Tate, D-Memphis. But it’s not the only pending legislation aiming to create a voucher program. Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, has a broader bill competing in the House. 

SCS said in a statement the district is monitoring the legislation as it progresses but that it’s too early to determine its full fiscal impact.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson previously questioned whether such a bill would be constitutional because it targets only one area. Kelsey said previously he believes his program is constitutional because it’s a pilot program.

The district and school board have also been vocally opposed to any voucher bill.

GOP operative trashes TEA school voucher poll

In a memo prepared by the polling firm OnMessage and sent to Republican legislators, veteran GOP political operative Ward Baker seeks to debunk a Tennessee Education Association memo sent to all legislators earlier declaring that its polling shows a majority of Republican voters oppose school vouchers. (The TEA press release is posted HERE.)

The email subject line says “The TEA Poll is Hogwash.” Baker’s introductory remarks:

Like many of you, I had a feeling that the “poll” announced by the teachers union looked sketchy. It is. It’s about as accurate as me saying I have hair like Willie Nelson. (Note: Baker is bald.) The team at OnMessage, Inc., who has a long history of reliable polling in Tennessee and national politics, have put together the attached analysis that explains exactly why it cannot be trusted as a reliable poll. Bottom line: Political scientists, consultants, and polling firms worth their salt know that any poll is useless if you randomly aggregate data over the course of seven months the way that TEA did.

While I was at the NRSC, we used serious pollsters and none of them would sign their name to what the TEA is peddling. They are clearly trying to manipulate legislators for their own agenda with fake polling. The “poll” saying four out of five dentists use Trident is more reliable than this hogwash.

The full memo is available by clicking on this link: tea-memo


TEA polling: Most Tennesseans don’t want school vouchers

News release from Tennessee Education Association

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Tennesseans strongly reject private school vouchers, according to the largest and most comprehensive polling data on the subject. TEA extensively surveyed rural, urban and suburban voters in all three Grand Divisions of the state, with an oversample of highly-likely Republican primary voters. The polls were conducted May through October of 2016.
Of the 6,510 respondents, 59.5 percent rejected private school vouchers, 29 percent approved. The two-to-one negative opinion was consistent across geographic and demographic groups. The polling margin of error is +/- 4 percent.
“I’ve rarely seen such a strong negative opinion. It is clear Tennesseans do not like or want school vouchers,” said Jim Wrye, TEA Government Relations manager. “We are a conservative state that values our local traditions and institutions. Vouchers are a radical idea that attack and weaken the foundation of our communities — our public schools.”

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Rep. Dunn not impressed with anti-voucher resolutions

The Knox County School Board has passed a resolution opposing school vouchers, but Knox County state Rep. Bill Dunn, longtime voucher backer, is not impressed.

Further from the News Sentinel:

“I don’t blame the school board for looking out for the system, but I think it’s more important to look out for the student,” Dunn said Tuesday afternoon. “This whole debate comes down to people who are trying to protect the system, and all I’m trying to do is protect the student and give them a future.”

…The Knox County school board voted 8-1 Tuesday evening to pass a resolution opposing any legislation that creates a state voucher system, calling such programs an “inefficient use of taxpayer money” that forces the residents to “support two school systems: one public and one private.” Mike McMillan was the lone board member to oppose the resolution.

Oak Ridge Schools passed a similar if more strongly worded resolution in late November.

Dunn said the bill largely was crafted by Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration and that the governor had requested he sponsor it in recent years. Dunn said he had meetings scheduled this week to discuss moving the bill forward this year after it was tabled during the last session when it appeared there weren’t enough votes to pass it.

The bill specifically is aimed at giving scholarships to students in the state’s lowest-performing schools, where test scores fall in the bottom 5 percent. In Knox County, that’s four schools: Green Magnet Math and Science Academy, Lonsdale Elementary, Sarah Moore Greene Magnet Technology Academy and Vine Middle School.

“If you don’t want voucher, get your schools out of the bottom five percent,” Dunn said. “It’s in (the school board’s) hands to improve the schools. There’s Greene (where) 92 percent of children there are not proficient in reading. Ninety-two percent. And the school board wants to say ‘nope, you have to stay.’ “

…Just as the voucher bill has been a perennial proposal in the General Assembly in recent years, so, too, have been the school board resolutions opposing them. The last voucher resolution in Knox County came up in March 2015 and passed on an  8-1 vote.


Six private schools deemed eligible for state vouchers to educate disabled kids

The Tennessee Department of Education has named the six private schools as the first eligible to accept taxpayer money to educate students with disabilities under a new state voucher program, reports Chalkbeat Tennessee.

They are:

Academy for Academic Excellence in Clarksville;

Bachman Academy in McDonald  (a community in Bradley County);

Gateway Academy Learning Labs in Nashville and Brentwood;

Madonna Learning Center in Germantown;

Saint Ann School in Nashville;

Skyuka Hall in Chattanooga

The schools will participate in a program that allows parents of students with disabilities to receive public money for private services such as home-schooling, private school tuition and tutoring. Leaders for the schools met the Nov. 1 application deadline for the program, which was created by a 2014 state law called the Individualized Education Act (IEA).

Under the voucher program, families with a child with eligible disabilities can receive an average of $6,000 annually in a special savings account. State officials reported Wednesday that 130 families applied to participate during the upcoming semester, representing less than 1 percent of the 20,000 students eligible statewide. The final number of participants might be even lower, as application materials are reviewed.

All along, state education officials predicted low family participation. That’s because the $6,000 voucher falls far short of the $16,000 average cost of educating students with disabilities. Families who opt in must waive their federal rights under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which mandates that all students receive a “free and appropriate” public education.