Policy Documents

Tennessee Voucher Proposal Waits for Fall

Joel Pavelski –
July 6, 2011

A bill working through the Tennessee legislature would offer more than 200,000 low-income students in the state's urban areas a voucher to attend the school of their choice.

The Equal Opportunity Scholarship Act passed the state Senate in April, but its companion bill (HB 388) stalled in the House.

“The bill moved faster than people expected last year, and it stalled to give the governor and House members time to really look at it,” said Ryan Turbeville, policy and outreach coordinator at the free-market Tennessee Center for Policy Research. “They weren't in opposition to the bill, but they wanted the time to see if this is the exact kind of program that they want.”

The House will study the bill this fall and take it up in the next legislative session, beginning in January. The bill's bipartisan sponsors are organizing a date for a study session on the bill, according to state Senator Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown), a sponsor of the Senate version.

“I think once the House takes a look at the idea, they'll decide the same way the Senate did,” Kelsey said. “For our low-income children in metropolitan areas, we don't have another five years to wait to give these children the quality education they deserve.”

The bill applies to students who are eligible for free and reduced-price lunch in Memphis, Shelby County, Nashville, Chattanooga, and Knoxville schools, or 208,163 students according to 2010 figures from the General Assembly's Joint Office of Fiscal Review. The scholarships would be half of amount that the state and local school systems spend on each child, or $5,400 in Memphis, $4,200 in Shelby County, $5,400 in Nashville and $4,600 in Chattanooga. The scholarships could be used in public charter, parochial, independent, or other public schools within the district.

Kelsey said though he wished the scholarship amount were larger, many schools had already stated that the scholarships would cover costs or that they were willing to make up the difference from private donations.

“It'll give these kids immediate access to choices that higher-income children have had for year,” he said. “Children would no longer be victims of their own geography.”

Turbeville said the Tennesee Center for Policy Research is coordinating the House's study committee, hoping to send legislators on a fact-finding trip to Florida to let them examine the state's successful voucher program. Recent data from the Department of Education places Florida at the top of all 50 states in its ability to deliver education opportunities to minority and low-income students.

“Studies of voucher programs show that they save local school systems money, and there's no greater accountability than choice, so this bill has a very good shot of passing next year,” he said.

Joel Pavelski (joel.pavelski@gmail.com) is a freelance writer living in Wisconsin.