Vouchers in Tennessee - an explainer

Here’s what you need to know about Tennessee’s latest voucher proposal.

Grace Tatter, Chalkbeat Tennessee | 3/10/2017, 4:23 p.m.
Here’s what you need to know about Tennessee’s latest voucher proposal.
For more than five years, lawmakers have debated the merits of creating a voucher program that would allow parents of students in low-performing schools to use public funds to pay for private school tuition.

After years of near misses, some Tennessee lawmakers are trying a more targeted approach to tuition vouchers with a proposal to pilot them exclusively in Memphis.

For more than five years, lawmakers have debated the merits of creating a voucher program that would allow parents of students in low-performing schools to use public funds to pay for private school tuition.

But the new Memphis-focused bill, sponsored by Sen. Brian Kelsey of Germantown and Rep. Harry Brooks of Knoxville, appears to have momentum. The measure sailed this week through its first committees in both chambers of the legislature.

Here are answers to questions from some of our readers about the new proposal:

Who would be impacted?

Kelsey’s bill focuses only on students in Shelby County Schools. First priority would go to students who meet the federal qualification for free and reduced lunch, which means their family income is up to 185 percent above the federal poverty threshold, and who are also zoned to a school in the state’s bottom 5 percent. Other students attending Shelby County Schools could take any leftover vouchers. As of now, the program is capped at 5,000 students, and the state estimates it could cost the local district nearly $19 million a year.

When would it go into effect?

The pilot program would begin in the fall of 2018 and run through the 2022-23 school year, at which point it would be terminated, continued or expanded, depending on what the General Assembly decides.

What schools would take vouchers?

Catholic schools are the most eager. In Memphis, leaders of Jubilee Schools have signaled they would participate in a voucher program. Jubilee was established expressly to serve families from low-income families. In other states with voucher programs, students have overwhelmingly attended religious schools.

Beyond that, it’s not clear how many private schools are willing to accept vouchers. In 2014, a researcher at Vanderbilt University found that most Memphis private schools weren’t interested. For one thing, the proposed vouchers are worth only $7,000, and private schools wouldn’t be allowed to charge more. Many of the city’s best-known private schools — like Kelsey’s alma mater, Memphis University School — have much higher tuitions. For another, private schools are wary of opening themselves up to the regulation and accountability measures that accepting public funding could involve.

How have vouchers impacted student achievement in other states?

Until recently, research was mixed. But in recent months, three studies, including one from the pro-school choice Thomas B. Fordham Institute, have suggested that students who participated performed worse on tests than their peers who remained in public schools. A study of Louisiana showed that public elementary school students who started at the 50th percentile in math dropped to the 26th percentile in a single year after using a voucher to transfer to a private school.

Despite the new research, Tennessee lawmakers are optimistic that Memphis would see better results.

How would private schools be held accountable?

That part of the bill is in flux. Lawmakers want the Tennessee Comptroller’s Office of Research and Education Accountability to assess the program’s results by comparing students’ test scores, as well as their growth measured by TVAAS, which stands for the Tennessee Value Added Assessment System. That means that students in private schools would have to take either the state’s TNReady test, or another nationally normed assessment approved by the State Board of Education. It also means that participating private schools would have to have at least 10 students in each grade level, so that researchers would have enough data to make meaningful comparisons.