Political News

Tennessee balks at school vouchers despite Trump support

Posted May 13

— Proponents of school vouchers hoped the national political mood could make this the year that Tennessee would enact a law allowing students to use public money to go to private schools.

They were wrong. And now they're mad.

Donald Trump won big in the state and picked Betsy DeVos as his education secretary, one of the country's most vocal champions of school choice. But big city school districts and a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers beat back the latest attempts to enact voucher legislation this session.

Legislators couldn't even enact a voucher pilot program limited to Shelby County, which includes Memphis.

The decision to put off the pilot program until at least next year incurred the wrath of the American Federation for Children, a school choice group DeVos once chaired. The group's Tennessee political action committee has spent more than $1.5 million on direct mail, advertising and candidate contributions since 2012.

After the measure's defeat, the group's national spokesman, Tommy Schultz, placed the blame for what he called the "dysfunctional House process" on Speaker Beth Harwell, a Nashville Republican who is expected to run for governor next year.

"By allowing her hand-picked committee to not even bring the bill to a vote, she demonstrated to Tennessee's Republican voters exactly how highly she regards them and the Republican Party platform," Schultz said in a press release.

Since that release was sent, six lobbyists hired by the American Federation for Children have quit.

Schultz brushed that aside.

"Lobbyists have their interests, and we have ours: fighting for the best interests of Tennessee families," he said in an email. "We'll continue to rally behind lawmakers who put the needs of children above special interests."

Harwell, who was a major proponent of expanding charter schools in the state, declined to comment on Schultz's accusation. In the past she has used her position as speaker to cast a tiebreaking vote to keep voucher legislation alive.

Rep. Gerald McCormick, a Chattanooga Republican who chairs the House Finance Subcommittee where the bill failed this year, called the attacks on Harwell "incredibly unfair."

"It's a disservice to her from people who she's done more to help here than anybody else in the Legislature has," McCormick said.

McCormick said national groups like the Americans Federation for Children and the Koch brothers' Americans for Prosperity shouldn't try to tell Tennessee lawmakers what to do.

"A lot of these groups have screwed Washington up, and now they're trying to screw the states up," he said. "We've gone about governing the state, even with that background noise, and I think that's a credit to everyone in the General Assembly."

It didn't help that lawmakers pushing for vouchers confronted two major obstacles this year: recent research studies suggesting that children who use vouchers perform worse than their peers at public schools, and opposition from many in Shelby County.

The pilot program bill would have let poor students in the lowest-performing schools in Shelby County go to private schools that accepted the voucher. Under the bill, a qualifying child would have received $7,000 to pay tuition at one of the participating private schools.

But voucher supporters ran into stiff resistance from Shelby County officials, many of whom said the program would siphon off money from underfunded public schools. The majority of state lawmakers from Shelby County didn't want vouchers.

The proposal would have helped many poor children in failing public schools, said Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, a big supporter of vouchers. He blamed the failure this year on powerful public school interest groups that don't want change.

"They don't want to have to compete," Dunn said.

Dunn has had a tough time selling vouchers in Tennessee and some of the opposition he has faced has come from rural lawmakers who are also Republicans. School systems tend to be among the largest employers in rural areas and they have a lot of sway with representatives, regardless of party.

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