With the reintroduction of a school voucher state bill likely, the Metro Nashville Board of Education plans to weigh in on the issue Tuesday when members will consider a resolution to oppose legislation that creates vouchers to fund private school tuition.
A vote on the resolution, similar to one recently adopted by Knox County’s school board, comes as state Sen. Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown) has vowed to move forward with a bill that would create what he dubs “Equal Opportunity Scholarships.” These 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. In Nashville, voucher funds would total $5,400.
School board chair Gracie Porter said the resolution is a joint measure put forth by board members and Director of Schools Jesse Register.
“It’s been in discussion for quite some time among our state officials,” Porter said. “We just felt this was something we would like to move a little bit further on.”
According to the Nashville Scene, The Coalition of Large Schools Systems –– a lobbying arm that works on behalf of the school districts in Chattanooga, Knoxville, Memphis and Nashville –– is working to defeat Kelsey’s bill. Metro schools spokeswoman Olivia Brown said the board’s resolution originated with this coalition.
Nonetheless, asked for Register’s position on the board’s resolution and the voucher bill, Brown declined to comment: “Since this is an agenda item for the board to consider at its meeting Tuesday, we feel it would not be appropriate to discuss in advance.”
Count Madison-area board member Mark North among those who plan to vote for the resolution.
“I’m not a big fan of vouchers proposals,” North said. “It sort of makes a mockery of a lot of the reform and improvement that the legislature has passed over the last several years. With the [Tennessee] Diploma Project, we ramped up graduation requirements, and this diverts money to schools that do not have those graduation requirements.”
North called Kelsey’s proposal “the private school relief act,” arguing it “subsidizes private education and entities with public funds.”
Other board members aren’t sure how they will vote. Michael Hayes, who represents the Green Hills area, said he doesn’t know “if vouchers are good or bad,” adding he’s seen “mixed results.” Still, Hayes cited budgetary concerns posed by vouchers. He also said he hasn’t seen the final version of the state bill authorizing vouchers.
“I don’t fully know where the legislature is on the issue,” Hayes said. “I would welcome hearing from members of the legislature who are proposing this voucher system, and I have not heard them yet.”
Kelsey, who resides in an affluent Memphis suburb, has cast his voucher plan as a mechanism to give more choice to students and parents.
“Equal Opportunity Scholarships provide impoverished children with hope for a better education and choice in the school they attend,” Kelsey has said. “Children should not be forced to attend a failing school just because they live in a certain neighborhood.
North derided Kelsey’s “choice” argument as “a political catchphrase that really is inaccurate in this proposal.” He said “it’s the private school admissions office that chooses who will go to school there, not the parents or the student.”
Kelsey’s bill cleared the Senate last year, but fell short in the House. Gov. Bill Haslam has said he would bring stakeholders together to discuss the “pros and cons” of vouchers and to look at the voucher experiences of other states.