An initiative that would allow some low-income Tennessee students to receive vouchers to attend private schools cleared the state Senate Monday, despite worries that the program is ill-timed because of legal questions over the adequacy of state funding for education.

The measure passed 24-8 with little debate, and mirrored legislation that the Senate has passed three times in five years.

The circumstances are different this year, however, argued Sen. Jeff Yarbro (D-Nashville) and Sen. Lee Harris (D-Memphis), urging their colleagues to vote the plan down.

“The timing of this could not really be worse,” said Yarbro, referring to a funding lawsuit filed last week against the state by seven school districts. “We’ve heard numerous concerns this year about whether we’re properly funding our public schools.”

The bill is scheduled for consideration Tuesday in the House Government and Operations Committee after advancing earlier this month from a House education panel.

Last year, the proposal passed in the Senate but failed in the House Finance Committee. But supporters are optimistic — and detractors are concerned — that the measure has more support in the House this year.

The proposed legislation would make vouchers available to students zoned for the bottom 5 percent of Tennessee schools. The state would provide 20,000 vouchers of up to $5,000 per student by the 2018-2019 school year. Private schools accepting the vouchers could not charge additional tuition.

Supporters say the bill is a natural progression of Tennessee’s drive to expand school choice and will make all schools better by increasing competition. Despite recent state reforms aimed at helping struggling low-income students, too many students are “imprisoned” in failing schools, said Sen. Delores Gresham (R-Somerville).

Critics oppose vouchers because they are costly and have a mixed track record of improving student achievement. Critics say they also distract policymakers from investments that would bring lasting educational improvements to all public schools.

Local public school districts would lose up to $70 million under a voucher system as money follows students to private schools, according to the bill’s fiscal note. In North Carolina, similar legislation is being challenged in the state Supreme Court, in part because of arguments that vouchers would cause hardship for public schools. Yarbro said Tennessee could see legal challenges to a voucher program as well.

Sen. Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown) said the proposed cap of 20,000 students would help public schools achieve financial stability, even as they lose students and money to private schools. Kelsey said he believes school systems actually would end up with more money per pupil because the bill doesn’t require sending all per-pupil funding to private schools, allowing local districts to keep $2,000 per student.

Also at issue was the breadth of the bill. Harris expressed concern about a provision that would allow unused vouchers to go to low-income students who do not attend schools in the state’s bottom 5 percent. He said the provision goes too far, but Gresham said the bill doesn’t go far enough.

“If I have any criticism [of this bill], it would be its timidity,” Gresham said. “When you have a narrow, restricted bill, you’re going to get narrow and restrictive results.”

Seven states and the District of Columbia currently offer vouchers to low-income students, but research is inconclusive on the impact of such programs. Several studies indicate that students who accept vouchers to private schools actually perform worse on average than their peers in public schools on statewide assessments. Other studies suggest voucher programs have improved public schools in their communities and increased the likelihood of high school graduation. The most expansive voucher program is in Indiana, where students in families with an income up to $62,000 can qualify.

Follow the status of education-related bills in the 109th Tennessee General Assembly.
Follow the status of education-related bills in the 109th Tennessee General Assembly.

Communities with vouchers have found that private schools accepting them sometimes are lower-performing schools than the public schools students are leaving. In Milwaukee, home of the nation’s oldest voucher program, the state’s 1992 voucher legislation incentivized the creation of  several financially mismanaged and low-achieving private schools. Louisiana has closed seven voucher-accepting private schools because of their low performance.

The potential impact of vouchers in Tennessee is unknown. With the choice landscape more varied than ever in Memphis — the city that would be most impacted — it’s not clear how many parents would opt for private schools. What is certain is that many private schools are not interested in accepting vouchers and the increased governmental involvement that goes with them, according to a 2014 Vanderbilt University study.

Do you support or oppose a voucher program in Tennessee – and why? Chalkbeat welcomes your comments below.

Contact Grace Tatter at gtatter@chalkbeat.org.

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