School voucher bill targeting Shelby County spurs debate in Tennessee House panel

School voucher bill targeting Shelby County spurs debate in Tennessee House panel

March 21st, 2017 by Andy Sher in Breaking News

Rep. Harry Brooks

NASHVILLE — A school voucher bill that targets Shelby County only moved through its first major House panel Tuesday amid testy debate among Memphis-area representatives.

Education Administration and Planning Committee members spent nearly two hours fighting over the measure, which creates a five-year pilot project in which poorer parents in low-performing schools can use public tax dollars to send their children to private and religious schools.

Then they passed the bill, sponsored by Rep. Harry Brooks, R-Memphis, the committee's chairman. It now goes to other House panels. A similar bill is moving in the Senate.

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Brooks' bill retreats from the more ambitious, years-long effort by proponents to provide taxpayer-funded vouchers or "opportunity scholarships" to low-income students across Tennessee attending priority schools falling into the bottom 5 percent on academic performance.

Those previous efforts would have impacted Hamilton County, Knox County, Metro Nashville, Shelby County (Memphis) and Hardemann County.

But a version of the broader approach is in another bill that remains in committee.

Following the bill's approval, Roy Herron, an attorney who represents Tennessee's small school districts, said he's concerned that if the voucher bill is approved for the Shelby County school system, other rural and urban systems like Hamilton's will be under threat of similar treatment.

"Memphis is not Las Vegas," said Herron, a former state senator. "What happens in Memphis won't stay in Memphis."

Proponents like to characterize vouchers as "opportunity scholarships," saying they give parents with children "trapped" in failing public schools more choice. Critics say the loss of money is a harpoon into the side of public education.

Rep. Johnnie Turner, D-Memphis charged that voucher programs have failed in several states, including Louisiana, and she questioned diverting money from public schools in a county that already has a number of schools in a special state-run district as well as regular public charter schools.

"This is not the time to use our kids as guinea pigs to experiment," she said.

But Rep. John DeBerry, D-Memphis, a minister and long-time voucher advocate, said students are trapped in badly performing public schools. They continue to read on an elementary school level and can't pass college entrance exams. Nor can they get into the military, DeBerry said.

DeBerry also fired a shot at the Tennessee Education Association, which is fighting the legislation and battled against broader efforts often pushed by national groups.

"My responsibility as an elected official is not to protect a profession," DeBerry said.

The House bill still needs to go through three other committees before it reaches the House floor. The Senate version, sponsored by Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, previously cleared the upper chamber's Education Committee.

Contact staff writer Andy Sher at or 615-255-0550.