Sponsors of school voucher bills won’t pursue issue in 2018 Tennessee legislative session

The Tennessean

Sen Brian Kelsey

The sponsors of a controversial school voucher bill will drop their support in the upcoming 2018 Tennessee legislative session, saying they instead plan to focus on creating more resources for the state’s schools. (Photo: Joel Ebert / The Tennessean)

The leading supporters of school vouchers in the Tennessee General Assembly say they won’t file any legislation on the issue ahead of the upcoming legislative session.

Instead, the lawmakers said they will focus on boosting resources for the state’s public schools. School vouchers are publicly funded scholarships for students to attend private school.

Rep. Harry Brooks, who was a sponsor of the past legislative session’s school voucher bill, said he wants more money for teacher pay, school technology and for staff to help guide Tennessee’s Response to Instruction and Intervention program.

The instruction and intervention framework is a tool for educators to help improve individual student instruction and identify student needs.

“We will have to wait and see what the governor proposes,” said Brooks, R-Knoxville. “If we can accomplish some of the three items, it will be a good year.”

Brooks, along with Germantown’s liberal Republican Sen. Brian Kelsey, introduced a school voucher bill that drew considerable backlash during the last legislative session because it would have created pilot program focused solely on Shelby County Schools.

The program was expected to divert about $18 million from the city’s schools.

Kelsey said in a statement his change of heart came after he found there wasn’t enough parental support. Kelsey has filed school voucher legislation for 12 years in a row.

“I care passionately about helping children and parents find the right school for them,” he said by email. “I listened to my community, and there is not enough parental support for opportunity scholarships at this time. Next year, I want to concentrate on helping public schools have the resources they need to succeed.”

Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, also said he won’t file any new legislation. He filed a competing school voucher bill during the last legislative session.

“I am letting Harry lead the way,” Dunn said in a text message. “I will support what he decides. I do not anticipate filing a new bill this session.”

The lack of support from the three key supporters doesn’t mean other voucher bills won’t surface, but it does put a cap on the fight over the Memphis-focused bill that had many Shelby County-area politicians, parents and teachers up in arms.

Brooks said there also wasn’t enough support broadly for the bill.

“I don’t think there are the votes in the legislature to pass it on the floor,” Brooks said.

Tennessee school voucher legislation has been controversial in the past.

Supporters have said they want to increase school choice for parents in low-performing districts. Opponents have argued vouchers will suck money away from already cash-strapped school districts.

A bill to create a school voucher program in Tennessee has only come close to passage once when Dunn’s bill made it to the House floor. At the time of the vote, the bill didn’t have enough support. Dunn then tabled the proposal.

In this year’s session, several school voucher bills were filed, including Dunn’s bill, but the Memphis pilot program became a favorite for legislators. Brooks removed the bill from consideration after it stalled in the House Finance Ways and Means subcommittee.

The decision by Kelsey, Brooks and Dunn comes after U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos visited Nashville in late-November and called for more education reform.

Her call included a focus on school vouchers, for which she was a strong supporter as a  major donor to Republican causes.

The issue of school vouchers, however, isn’t dead in Tennessee, Brooks said.

“I don’t think it is over,” he said. “As long as Tennessee has children that are struggling with quality education opportunities then it is always out there as a point of consideration.”

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