Following in the footsteps of Knox County, and perhaps aligning with Tennessee’s two other largest school districts, Metro Nashville Public Schools went on record Tuesday urging the state legislature to reject legislation accommodating vouchers that would divert public funds to private schools.
“I don’t think it’s the proper way for our children in the Metropolitan Nashville public school system to go,” school board chair Gracie Porter said of a voucher system she contends would subtract public dollars from the classroom.
The Metro Nashville Board of Education unanimously approved a resolution Tuesday to oppose voucher legislation like the one state Sen. Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown) has vowed to reintroduce, which would create what he calls “Equal Opportunity Scholarships.” Such scholarships, totaling half the amount the state and school districts spends on a student, would be available for students to attend independent, private or religious institutions. The formula equals $4,050 in Metro.
Kelsey’s bill died in the House last session. He plans to bring it back again before the next General Assembly. He won’t have the support of Metro’s school board or Director of Schools Jesse Register.
“Vouchers remain controversial and unpopular with no proven benefit to student performance,” reads one of several sections in Metro’s resolution, which is to be delivered to Gov. Bill Haslam, House Speaker Beth Harwell, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey and every other state House and Senate member.
Kelsey’s bill has aroused the attention of the Coalition of Large Schools Systems, which has a lobbying presence on the Hill, representing school systems in Chattanooga, Knoxville, Memphis and Nashville.
Knox County’s school board has already voted for a CLASS-influenced anti-voucher resolution. Like Nashville, the Memphis Unified School District was to consider one Tuesday night. On Thursday, Chattanooga’s board of education is poised to weigh in.
The nine-member Metro school board’s vote came after a 15-minute discussion initiated by board member Kay Simmons, who asked her colleagues to relay some pro-voucher system arguments: “Can anyone speak to this?”
Veteran board member Ed Kindall offered to help, saying vouchers help private institutions: “I haven’t seen any academic data to suggest it helps what we do. The people to answer that would have to be those proposing.”
Kelsey, who resides in an affluent Memphis suburb, has argued his voucher scholarships would give “hope for a better education” and greater choice to impoverished children. He has said low-income students shouldn’t be forced to attend failing schools.
But board members Tuesday took particular exception to the choice argument, pointing out the district’s recent expansion of charter and thematic magnet schools.
“I’ve not heard anything other than vouchers are another choice,” Porter said. “Well, when you look at [Metro] schools, we are providing as many choices as any school district, and we will continue to add more.”
Board member Michael Hayes, who represents the Green Hills area on the board, said he would have preferred the resolution include footnotes to explain how some of its anti-voucher conclusions were drawn. But he also said he wished state legislators supporting a voucher system would have reached out to Metro.
“I’m very disappointed that no one from the state legislature reached out to anybody in Nashville –– I haven’t heard if they have in Memphis, Knoxville or Chattanooga –– to explain why this is necessary,” Hayes said.
“I’ve received multiple emails from constituents who were excited about the legislation and others who were opposed,” he added.
Board member Mark North, who acts as Metro’s representative in the large school coalition, said he and Register would be testifying before the House Education Committee next week to discuss their opposition to vouchers and other issues.