Opponents of school vouchers in Tennessee have been trying to figure out Gov. Bill Lee’s proposal while also mobilizing against it.

They’ve had to move quickly: This year’s voucher legislation was filed later than ever before. It’s also moving faster than in past years, putting those who do not think public funds should be used to pay private school tuition in a tough position.

In the past, critics of vouchers have had more time to mount spirited public opposition, often in the form of rallies in Nashville and Memphis, the city that would likely be most affected.

But this year, Lee didn’t introduce his “parent choice” bill until two months into the legislative session, when schools in the state’s two largest districts were on spring break. As a result, his bill’s critics have had to adopt different strategies.

Amber Sherman, center, speaks with a group of school voucher supporters in 2016 after they crashed her press conference in Memphis.
PHOTO CREDIT: Jim Weber/The Commercial Appeal

“We’re definitely still mobilized, but it’s not easy to drop everything and go to Nashville. We have jobs, and a lot of people weren’t even in town when the legislation was introduced again,” said Amber Sherman, the women’s caucus chair for the Tennessee Young Democrats, who helped organize a rally in Memphis in 2016, the last time voucher legislation advanced this far. “So we’re doing everything we can phone banking and emailing-wise to make sure our message is still getting across.”

Sherman and other voucher opponents say taxpayer money would be better spent improving public schools — and argue that vouchers could hurt public schools by siphoning off students and funding.

But Lee and supporters of education savings accounts say the money for parents can mean the difference between staying “stuck” in a low-performing school and getting a better education in the private sector. The state Republican Party has launched its own campaign to get voters to call their representatives in support of the measure.

In the last two weeks, Lee’s bill has cleared two significant hurdles, though it faces more votes in House committees in the weeks ahead. The Senate Education Committee could take up the bill as soon as next Wednesday, April 3.

Rep. Gloria Johnson of Knoxville said the late rollout of the legislation — and last-minute changes to the bill before Wednesday’s split vote in the House Education Committee — have been calculated moves by Lee’s administration.

“There’s a lot of people who don’t understand yet what all is in this bill. We are not hearing their voice,” said Johnson, a Democrat and retired special education teacher. “And I think this is intentional. I think they don’t want time for people to organize.”

Teachers line a hall at the state Capitol to cheer for lawmakers as a voucher bill fails in 2016.
PHOTO CREDIT: Marta W. Aldrich/Chalkbeat

Public opposition to vouchers has helped doom past legislation. The closest vouchers came to passing was in 2016 when Rep. Bill Dunn of Knoxville got a bill through committee but retreated from a House vote at the last minute when he realized he didn’t have enough support. In subsequent years, strong opposition, especially in Memphis and rural counties, contributed to a climate where voucher advocates made less headway.

But this year, a new governor, Lee, is making the issue one of his top priorities, and lawmakers eager to provide a honeymoon period appear to be lining up.

“It felt like they had already made up their minds,” said Joni Laney, a retired teacher who drove more than three hours from Memphis in part for this week’s vote. “It was clear they really wanted to give Lee a victory. It really didn’t have that much to do with the bill.”

Catch-up efforts could pay off for voucher critics. Laney found out about this week’s hearing because of a callout from Pastors for Tennessee Children, a new advocacy group. “The only way I knew what was in the bill was from an email about mobilizing against it,” she said.

But some activists hoping to keep vouchers out of Tennessee “are flat-out fatigued,” said Lisa Jorgenson, a leader with United Education Association of Shelby County, a Memphis teacher group.

“We’re just all kind of at peak capacity,” added Tracy O’Connor, a parent in Memphis who has advocated against vouchers in the past, adding she and other voucher opponents have been working lately on getting more funding for aging Memphis school buildings. “Who has the bandwidth to fight on all these different fronts?”

Plus, O’Connor said, the low-income families that in theory would be affected most by vouchers likely don’t have flexible jobs or child care that would allow them to weigh in.

“The people you most want to advocate are the people who are least likely to be able to come up for a last-minute spur-of-the-moment kind of thing,” O’Connor said. “By the time you find out about something, [lawmakers] are already about to vote on it and move through committee.”

But even if opponents are feeling battle-weary, Democratic legislative leaders say it’s critical for more voices to be heard.

“It’s hard to express what a sweeping piece of legislation this voucher — or ESA — bill is,” said Rep. Mike Stewart of Nashville, calling it “an extraordinary assault on our public schools.”