House committee OKs school voucher proposal for Memphis area

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — A proposal to create a school voucher pilot program for Shelby County passed Tuesday in an education House committee following rancorous debate.

The bill sponsored by Rep. Harry Brooks, a Knoxville Republican, would let taxpayer money be used to send public school children to private schools.

Opponents fear vouchers will take money from public schools. Supporters say vouchers give parents choices when they are locked into a failing neighborhood school system.

Shelby County lawmakers were the most impassioned during debate, with several telling others from elsewhere to stop making decisions about their schoolchildren.

Rep. Johnnie Turner, D-Memphis, said vouchers haven’t worked in other states and said money for private schools shouldn’t be diverted from the neighborhood schools.

“This is not the time to use our kids as guinea pigs, to experiment on our kids,” Turner said.

Rep. Ron Lollar, R-Bartlett, told fellow lawmakers that if they wanted to pass a voucher bill they should do it in their own districts. He said all the school boards in Shelby County had passed resolutions opposing the bill.

But John DeBerry, D-Memphis, pleaded with others on the committee to think about the kids who come out of public schools and are being hurt because the schools are failing them. DeBerry, an African-American, said many kids who look like him get a piece of paper and “read on a third-, fourth- or fifth- grade level,” who can’t pass the college-entrance test or get into the military.

DeBerry also appeared to fire a salvo at teachers’ unions favoring the status quo.

“My responsibility as an elected official is not to protect a profession.”

Mark White, R-Germantown, asked lawmakers to think about Memphis, saying many good things are happening there, but not enough kids are graduating from high school.

“We now have 130,000 people in the city of Memphis who do not have high school degrees,” White said. “That is wrong.”

Opponents also fear that the Memphis pilot program would be the first step in a statewide voucher program. Roy Herron, former Democratic state lawmaker who now represents Tennessee School Systems for Equity (TSSE), said three of the four largest voucher programs in the country started out as pilot programs. “Memphis is not Las Vegas,” Herron said. “What happens in Memphis won’t stay in Memphis.” TSSE represents more than 80 public school systems in Tennessee.

The pilot program would last five years if the measure passes into law.