Creative funding

Tennessee has a $2 billion surplus. Here’s a new idea to invest more in schools.

With about $2 billion in extra revenue this year, Tennessee is flush with cash.

But it may not last, which is why Gov. Bill Haslam is reticent to invest too much of the state’s surplus in public schools in need ongoing funding.

Now two state lawmakers have an idea that could both benefit public education and satisfy fiscal conservatives.

Rep. Craig Fitzhugh of Ripley and Sen. Jeff Yarbro of Nashville propose using $250 million of this year’s surplus to create a public education fund akin to a college endowment. Money that grows out of the one-time investment could be used to help schools with extras that aren’t already covered by the state’s school funding formula.

In the first year alone, the fund could produce about $10 million in revenue for Tennessee schools, according to Fitzhugh’s estimate. Then, in other boom times, the state could add money to the fund if lawmakers see fit.

The idea was inspired by Tennessee Promise, which invests state lottery money in a separate fund used to cover students’ tuition to community college.

Why not use a similar approach for K-12 education? ask Fitzhugh and Yarbro, both Democrats.

“Tennessee is doing pretty well,” Fitzhugh said. “We could come up with a sizeable fund to put up in a separate fund, a separate endowment for primary and secondary education. This year is unique to do that.”

The level of funding for public schools has been the source of several lawsuits against the state by local districts that say Tennessee isn’t fulfilling its obligation to provide all students with an adequate education.

The Fitzhugh-Yarbro bill would help address that concern by allocating the fund’s additional revenue to districts based on student enrollment. Districts couldn’t use the money to cover basic necessities like teacher salaries — just extras that aren’t covered by Tennessee’s Basic Education Program.

“We had in mind reading courses, some additional money for dual enrollment — things that would get students ready to take on the Tennessee Promise,” Fitzhugh said.

The fund also could provide a buffer during lean times.

“These good times are probably not going to last forever,” Fitzhugh said. “If we needed some operating money to make it through the year, the legislature could authorize that some of this fund could be used for that purpose.”

While proposed by two Democrats in a state with a Republican supermajority, the bill is getting a serious look from lawmakers. The measure sailed through education committees in both chambers.

Gov. Bill Haslam leads a 2015 budget hearing.

But it may be a tougher sell beginning this week in legislative finance committees, which also are looking at Haslam’s proposed budget. Haslam spokeswoman Jennifer Donnals said the bill has a “fiscal flag” because it’s price tag is not reflected in the governor’s spending plan, which already includes a $230 million increase for schools. Haslam wants to use part of the surplus to boost Tennessee’s “rainy day” fund to about $800 million.

“It’s sort of in his court right now,” Fitzhugh said of the governor. “It’s not a partisan bill. It’s totally something that could benefit the No. 1 thing, which is education.”

College Access

In-state tuition bill for Tennessee’s undocumented immigrants clears first legislative hurdle

Undocumented students from across Tennessee pose Tuesday on the steps of the State Capitol with Gov. Bill Haslam, Rep. Mark White, and Sen. Todd Gardenhire. Brought to Nashville by the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, the students met with lawmakers and lobbied for a bill that would give them access to in-state college tuition, regardless of their immigration status. The students came from Chattanooga, Knoxville, Johnson City, Memphis, Murfreesboro, Nashville, and Sevierville. White and Gardenhire are the bill's sponsors.

Seventeen-year-old Nellely Garcia watched with elation Tuesday as a bill that would make it easier for her to attend college cleared its first hurdle in Tennessee’s legislature.

Nellely Garcia is a senior at Wooddale High School in Memphis and does not have legal status to receive in-state college tuition when she graduates.

An immigrant from Mexico who has lived in Memphis since she was a baby, Garcia traveled to Nashville during her spring break to support legislation that would provide in-state tuition to any student who attends a Tennessee high school for at least three years, regardless of their immigration status. The bill is aimed at students like Garcia, who has attended public school in Tennessee since kindergarten after her parents moved their family to Memphis without legal permission.

The measure passed 4-1 in the House Education Administration and Planning Subcommittee, with Rep. Dawn White, a Republican from Murfreesboro, casting the sole nay vote. It’s sponsored by Rep. Mark White, a Germantown Republican, and Sen. Todd Gardenhire, a Republican from Chattanooga, who have championed the proposal since 2015. That year, it passed in the Senate but fell one vote short of clearing the House.

“This bill will give us a fair chance to have a higher education and pursue our dreams,” said Garcia, a senior at Wooddale High School. “We have the ability to contribute. We want the opportunity to give back.”

But Garcia understands that the legislative process is a marathon and not a sprint. The measure must pass a full House committee and a Senate panel before heading to both chambers. Gov. Bill Haslam has said he would sign the bill if it reaches his desk.

“This is the first step. We’ve got several more committees to pass, but certainly this is an amazing start,” said Stephanie Teatro, a leader with the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, speaking to dozens of cheering high school students after Tuesday’s vote.

The bill is supported by most of the state’s public colleges and universities and, based on a 2017 poll by Vanderbilt University, about 72 percent of Tennesseans favor it, too.

Rep. Dawn White voted against the measure, arguing that Tennessee taxpayers should not give a tuition break to students who are in the country illegally.

Garcia has a different perspective. “I’ve lived here all my life. I may not have the papers, but I’m as American as my other classmates,” she told Chalkbeat.

But she likely won’t be able to afford college, she said, without in-state tuition, which cuts the cost of attending a public college or university by a third. Garcia hopes to study psychology or American history at the University of Memphis or Christian Brothers University.

“If I don’t go to college, my choices are really to work or get married. That’s not what I want to do right now,” she said. “I want to get in-state tuition like my other classmates.”


School vouchers hit snag in Tennessee as sponsor announces he won’t advance bill

PHOTO: The Commercial Appeal
Sen. Brian Kelsey, a Republican from Germantown, has sponsored several voucher bills in the Tennessee General Assembly.

The push to allow some Tennesseans to use private-school vouchers has hit a roadblock that could stall voucher legislation for a fourth year.

Sen. Brian Kelsey said Monday that he won’t ask a Senate committee to take up his bill — which would pilot a program in Memphis — when the legislature reconvenes its two-year session in January.

“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.

Rep. Harry Brooks, who sponsors the proposal in the House, did not immediately return phone calls about whether he will seek a new Senate sponsor. Kelsey would not comment if he would support the legislation if another state senator picked up the mantle.

Kelsey’s retreat calls into question the future of the voucher legislation in Tennessee, home to a perennial tug-of-war over whether to allow parents to use public money to pay for private school tuition. It also comes as U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has focused national attention on the policy.

This year, the proposal reached as far as the Senate finance committee and a House finance subcommittee before Brooks asked to delay a vote until 2018. At the time, he cited the need to work out details about private school accountability, specifically for high school students.

Kelsey said Monday he would not withdraw the bill or his sponsorship, but also doesn’t plan to bring the measure to a vote in the finance committee, which would halt the proposal in its tracks unless a new sponsor comes aboard.

This week’s development signals that the momentum for vouchers may be shifting for now.

Nationally, recent studies show that achievement dropped, at least initially, for students using vouchers in Louisiana, Indiana, Ohio and Washington, D.C. And in Tennessee, one group that has lobbied annually for vouchers is taking a step back from the issue, according to its executive director.

“I can tell you that Campaign for School Equity will not be pursuing or supporting any voucher legislation this year. It’s a shift in focus for us …,” Mendell Grinter said, adding that the Memphis-based black advocacy group is switching emphasis to student discipline and other issues of more concern to its supporters.

Even so, DeVos urged Tennessee lawmakers to pass vouchers during her first visit to the state last month. “Too many students today … are stuck in schools that are not working for them,” she told reporters. (The U.S. Department of Education cannot mandate voucher programs, but could offer incentives to states to pass them.)

Vouchers have passed three times in Tennessee’s Senate, only to stall each time in the House. Proponents had thought that limiting vouchers to Memphis would garner the legislative support needed this year, but the Kelsey-Brooks bill didn’t sit well in the city that would be most impacted. Opposition swelled among county commissioners, local legislators, and numerous school boards across Greater Memphis.

During discussions Monday with Shelby County lawmakers, Bartlett Superintendent David Stephens said vouchers would be a blow to districts already unsteady from years of reform efforts.

“Any time we take dollars out of public schools, we’re hurting public schools,” Stephens told Chalkbeat later. “We don’t need to do anything to hurt or cut funding there. When we talk in Shelby County about school choice, we have the municipal districts, charter schools, the county school system. That’s choice.”

Rep. Antonio Parkinson, a Memphis Democrat, said opposition from the Bartlett district appeared to carry more weight with Kelsey than did Shelby County Schools, which has publically been on the record against the legislation from the start.

“Challenges (that Stephens) talked about were challenges we’ve been screaming about from SCS’ standpoint for years,” Parkinson said.

Rep. Bill Dunn, a Knoxville Republican who has championed vouchers for years, said he’ll be disappointed if a bill doesn’t come up for a vote in 2018. “The whole reason for vouchers is to give a chance to these kids who are doomed unless they get in a different educational environment,” he said.

Tennessee’s legislature reconvenes on Jan. 9.

Chalkbeat reporter Caroline Bauman contributed to this report.