Background on school vouchers

Tennessee Senator Brian Kelsey
Sen. Brian Kelsey

Sen. Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown), sponsor of the latest Senate school voucher bill (SB0161), declined to write a column or provide a single statement about school vouchers. However, he has expressed his view widely in the past.

He has pushed for vouchers (labeled “school choice”) for more than a decade. This year’s bill is narrower in scope, applying only to students in Shelby County Schools’ lowest-performing schools. The most recent amendment to his bill calls for a 5.5-year pilot program operating only in Memphis schools.

Kelsey is a member of the state Senate Education Committee. His bill would create a program letting low-income families use tax dollars to send their children to private schools.

One hotly debated aspect of the bill in recent weeks is whether participating children in private schools should be required to take the same testing (TNReady) that public school students take so that accurate comparisons can be made between the performances of private-school students in the Memphis pilot program and students in public schools.

This year, the House of Representatives is also taking a whack at the topic of school vouchers. Rep. Harry Brooks (R-Knoxville) sponsored the House version (HB0126) of a voucher bill. Sen. Reginald Tate (D-Memphis) is a co-sponsor. Brooks and Tate also did not respond to Bartlett Express requests to write columns or issue statements on the topic of school vouchers.

On the Senate bill’s web page, it describes the voucher program’s expected costs. The fiscal note first explains that the estimate applies only to school districts with schools performing in the bottom five percent of achievement, with a requirement to participate in the state’s scholarship program. The funding shift from public schools to private schools is estimated to cost:

  • $8,867,500 in FY17-18
  • $13,633,100 in FY18-19
  • $18,632,500 in FY19-20
  • More than $18,632,500 in FY18-19 and subsequent years

At the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), Kelsey said, “This year I’m confident — 2017 will be the year that school choice legislation for low-income students passes in Tennessee.”

[Editor’s note: The issue containing this column went to press on Tuesday, April 25. On Wednesday, April 26, Rep. Harry Brooks pushed the House version of this bill to next year, meaning that for the seventh year, vouchers will not pass the Tennessee Legislature. See details in this article.]