A school voucher program for Nashville and other large Tennessee cities cleared the Republican-run Senate Thursday, and the state teachers’ union immediately accused the majority party of trying to destroy public education by draining away tax money.
The legislation would give low-income students an opportunity to receive what the GOP sponsors are calling “Equal Opportunity Scholarships” to attend the school of their choice, including private religious schools. The bill applies to students who are eligible for free and reduced-price lunches in Nashville, Memphis, Shelby County, Chattanooga and Knoxville schools.
“Equal Opportunity Scholarships provide impoverished children with hope for a better education and choice in the school they attend,” Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, said of his bill. “With this bill, children need no longer be victims of their own geography.”
In a statement, Tennessee Education Association Director of Government Relations Jerry Winters said the following:
“The public ought to be outraged that 18 members of the state Senate voted for a blatant voucher bill which will drain much needed funds from public education to private and parochial schools. Not only does this bill rob public schools, but it raises serious issues when public tax dollars go to schools which promote a particular religious viewpoint. I would hope that when the first tax dollar goes to a religious school, a lawsuit would be filed to question its constitutionality. Several members of the Senate seem almost intent on destroying public education, and the children of this state will be the real losers.”
Both Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey and House Speaker Beth Harwell praised the bill. Ramsey called it “monumental.”
“Children should not be forced to attend a failing school just because they live in a certain neighborhood,” Ramsey said. “Equal Opportunity Scholarships will allow all children to receive the quality education they deserve.”
Harwell was more reserved in her comments but agreed the state ought to try vouchers to see if they improve schools.
“What I hear from every educator who really truly cares, they say, ‘Give us one more tool in our toolbox, one more option for a child.’ Having three children of my own, I can tell you all three of them are in different schools because children learn differently. Why take that option away? If it can help a child, let’s pursue it,” Harwell said.
The companion bill in the House remains in a subcommittee, raising questions about whether the measure will become law this session.
House Republican leader Gerald McCormick said, “The scheduling works against it this year. Certainly we want to make sure it’s done right before we push it all the way through. So I don’t know that we’re in an urgent rush to get that done.”
Told of McCormick’s comments, Ramsey expressed surprise and promised to push for passage in the House.
“I’ll get to work on that,” Ramsey said.
The scholarships would amount to $5,400 in Nashville and Memphis, $4,600 in Chattanooga and $4,300 in Knoxville — half the money that state and local school systems spend on each child.