After years of failed attempts, Republican Tennessee lawmakers are preparing to propose another round of school voucher legislation this upcoming legislative session.
Rep. Bill Dunn told The 74 he will soon introduce a bill that offers taxpayer-funded private-school scholarships to students who attend schools in the bottom 5 percent of the state’s rankings.
“When we talk about failing schools, we’re not talking about, ‘Gee, it’s kind of bad.’ It’s really horrible,” said Dunn, who represent part of Knoxville. “They have long histories of not turning out students who are ready for the world.”
Dunn is one of several Tennessee school-choice supporters who hope the legislation will ride the wave of President-elect Donald Trump’s support in a state that has been historically skeptical of vouchers. Tennessee’s debate comes at a time when state education leaders are mulling the best way to hold low-performing schools accountable now that the Every Student Succeeds Act offers them more flexibility.
“We do feel like we were really close before, and we think we have a slightly better outlook than before,” said Mark Cunningham, communications director for the Beacon Center of Tennessee, which is advocating for school choice this legislative session.
Critics say they plan to fight any voucher legislation that makes it to the floor.
“We’re always going to be against diverting public funds away from public education,” said Sara Bunch, communications director of the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents.
Under Dunn’s proposal, the scholarships would be capped at a certain number of student participants and paid for by the state and local governments at the current state-mandated per-pupil funding levels.
He proposed a similar bill last year, but it was tabled when its supporters realized they didn’t have enough votes. Dunn said Gov. Bill Haslam has asked him to introduce it again.
“Tennessee is leading the nation in improvement in education,” Dunn said. “The governor has been very deliberate in doing the things that actually matter.”
Another voucher proposal would rely on the federal government for funding. Rep. Brian Kelsey told The 74 he plans to introduce legislation creating a pilot program that would provide scholarships of about $6,500 to needy kids in low-performing districts. He said he hopes the new Republican Congress and president will pass legislation such as Sen. Lamar Alexander’s previously proposed “Scholarships for Kids Act” to help make his voucher program a reality.
“I think our new president is helping to change the conversation on this,” Kelsey said.
In the past, such legislation has faced resistance from Tennessee’s teachers union, some Democrats, superintendents, local school boards and rural Republicans who fear vouchers could hurt public education in their communities.
“How can we take money from failing schools and give it to private schools?” House Democratic leader Craig Fitzhugh argued last year. “We’d do better to take money from schools in the richest neighborhoods, not the poorest.”
The Knox County school board recently voted 8–1 to pass a resolution opposing any voucher legislation because it forces residents to “support two school systems: one public and one private.”
(The 74: Vouchers Could Be the Big Winner in Trump’s School Choice Plan, but Is That a Victory for Students?)
This year, however, skeptics might have a harder time fighting voucher legislation. For starters, several lawmakers who opposed such proposals in the past lost their seats in the latest election, say legislators and activists.
Advocates also hope that Trump, a self-described cheerleader for choice, will give them some fresh political momentum.
Rep. David Hawk is one Republican lawmaker who is open to a renewed debate. Though he represents Greeneville, a well-to-do community in eastern Tennessee, he voted in favor of vouchers last year after hearing from city-dwelling parents looking for more educational options for their kids.
“I look at these families who are literally begging for some type of help in their communities to give their children an opportunity to success,” he said. “I voted in favor of that legislation because the families in that [community] were begging for help.”