As momentum builds for Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee’s proposed voucher bill, black voucher supporters in Memphis have been largely silent on the issue — or they have changed their tune.
Last week, when the bill came before and subsequently cleared a key House committee, no black leaders from Memphis spoke in favor of the measure. One black Nashville advocate, Shaka Mitchell, the executive director of pro-voucher Tennessee Federation for Children, spoke in favor of the bill and brought a student who attended a Memphis private school.
That stands in stark contrast to four years ago, when city pastors with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference said vouchers shift “power to low-income parents” and presented lawmakers with a petition to that effect signed by 25,000 people.
During previous attempts at passing such measures, supporters saw the backing of black Memphians as key to convincing lawmakers that vouchers would help students zoned to the state’s lowest performing schools — most of whom are black and from low-income families.
Like previous voucher bills, the current educational savings account plan provides state funds for private educational services. Among the differences this time around, though, is the expansion of eligibility requirements that have some questioning whom this program would benefit.
“We were told that it would be for low-income children, and also that the children would have to be zoned to a failing school,” said Erika Pearson, who for years criss-crossed Memphis drumming up support for vouchers, but opposes the current legislation.
The governor’s proposal initially made educational savings accounts available to families of four with annual incomes up to about $93,000 who live anywhere in a district with at least three failing schools. The governor’s administration recently reduced that income cap to about $65,000, which is double the threshold for families who qualify for free school lunches via federal guidelines. In its first year, up to 5,000 eligible families would receive vouchers worth an average $7,300.
Such legislation was already an uphill battle in Memphis where few private schools expressed willingness to accept vouchers, elected officials were on the record opposing them, and the previous governor’s task force on the issue, according to private school leader Mary McDonald, found only “moderate” interest from parents.
This time around, the messaging from pro-voucher groups, such as the Tennessee Federation of Children, has changed, Pearson said — citing promotional materials that feature white children front and center and “nothing in terms of the marginalized section of the population.”
The federation’s spokesperson, Gillum Ferguson, said “there hasn’t been a shift in our messaging on this.”
“Our principle is parents regardless of zip code should be able to exercise more choice. [Education savings accounts] are able to provide that,” Ferguson said. “We’re about expanding choices for parents and their education, period.”
He also added the income cap in Lee’s proposal is not so high to dilute benefits to low-income families.
When Mendell Grinter came to Memphis a few years ago to start a local chapter of the pro-voucher Black Alliance for Educational Options, he rallied pastors in support of vouchers. But when the national group dissolved and Grinter became more familiar with parents’ concerns and with city schools, his group stopped actively advocating for vouchers.
“What we’ve heard in community conversations was that Memphians felt there were enough reforms in place and that we should focus on what was already going on, not vouchers,” said Grinter, the executive director of Campaign for School Equity.
Charlie Caswell, a pastor recruited by Grinter’s former organization, said he has changed his mind.
“After looking into the deep revelations about the underfunding of public schools through the [state’s education funding formula] and other things I thought were inequities that weren’t being addressed, it made me kinda rethink those efforts,” he told Chalkbeat.
In addition, the 2017 death of Dwight Montgomery, a well-known pastor and one of the city’s most prominent black voucher supporters, dampened rallying cries. The former president of the local chapter of Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Montgomery regularly piped up in favor of vouchers and praised President Donald Trump’s appointment of Betsy DeVos, a former board member for American Federation for Children, one of the largest pro-voucher organizations in the nation.
Montgomery’s successor, Walter Womack, has continued to advocate for school vouchers for low-income families, but has not testified to lawmakers on behalf of Lee’s proposal. He had initially agreed to an interview with Chalkbeat, but did not respond to multiple subsequent attempts to reach him for this story.
Latanya Farmer, an organizer and Montgomery’s longtime secretary, and Keith Williams, a pastor who previously testified to state lawmakers in favor of vouchers, had also agreed to be interviewed, but did not respond to Chalkbeat’s later attempts to reach them, respectively.
Lee’s education savings account bill still has several hoops to jump through before becoming law. The state Senate’s education committee is slated to consider the legislation on Wednesday.