Sometime in the next few weeks, before the scheduled adjournment of the Tennessee General Assembly in April, the state House of Representatives will take a deep breath and vote on an issue as crucial to the future of education
in Tennessee as anything that is happening or about to happen in Washington, D.C.
The issue is that of a school-vouchers bill sponsored by state Senator Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown), who has tried and failed with similar legislation for several years running. The current bill is styled as a pilot program and is written so as to single out Shelby County in general and the Shelby County Schools system in particular. As of this week, it has advanced through the state Senate Education Committee on its way to that chamber's Finance, Ways, and Means Committee and was due for action in the House Education administration and Planning Committee.
The bill has undergone some amendments already and may undergo further amendments before it is subject to floor votes in both Senate and House, but its basic provisions are clear enough. It would use taxpayer funds to provide vouchers that students might use to defray the costs of tuition at private institutions. According to state Representative John DeBerry (D-Memphis), one of the bill's relatively few legislative supporters in the inner-city areas that presumably would be targeted by the measure, the Kelsey bill amounts to little more than "just another tool in the toolbox, just another innovation" at a time of openness to experimentation on the part of both state and federal governments.
One problem is that the "tools" — i.e., education dollars — that would be handed over to participating private institutions would come directly out of the financial toolbox that would ordinarily be subject to the use of the Shelby County Schools public school system itself. "The dollar follows the child" is the rule of thumb in allocating the state's education funding, and every dollar that follows a child to private school is a dollar that is denied a public-school system that is already in a near-catastrophic financial squeeze.
The bill would multiply the number of "scholarships" year by year, increasing the number from 5,000 in 2017-18 to as many as 20,000 in 2020-21.
Another major problem is that the famous — and increasingly endangered — constitutional dividing line between church and state could become porous to the point of dissolving altogether. The bill — again, subject to amendment — would allocate as much as $7,000 per student per year, and that amount, though far beneath the annual tuition requirements of Shelby County's preeminent private institutions specializing in college preparation, is well within the tuition range of numerous parochial schools whose parent churches significantly augment the institutions' financial base.
However disguised as a "pilot program," the bill directly challenges the state's constitutional prohibitions against "private" (i.e., locality-specific) legislation that is not endorsed by the governing body of the locality.
This bill is definitely not so endorsed. The governing body, the Shelby County Commission, made a point in its February 20th meeting of opposing this voucher bill. That vote was unanimous, including Republicans, Democrats, and the representatives of city and county alike.