Memphis, Nashville schools oppose state’s Education Savings Account bills

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Memphis and Nashville school leaders say they are prepared for a legal fight against the proposed Education Savings Account plan that made its way through the General Assembly last week, saying it violates the state's constitution.

Leaders of the two largest Tennessee school districts object to language in both the House and Senate versions of the bills that would limit the educational accounts to Shelby County, including Memphis, and Nashville.

“If the Governor and Legislature are determined to pass a general law that would apply arbitrarily only to us or a limited number of school systems, we will be sure to exhaust all of our legal options,” interim Shelby County Schools Superintendent Joris Ray said in a news release.

Gov. Bill Lee and many state Republicans have touted the plan as a way to give parents in low-performing school districts more choice in their children's education by allowing them to use state money to attend private schools. One version of the bill would also allow parents to use that money for home schooling.

But critics say it amounts to private school vouchers that take money out of public schools.

“No matter what you call them, vouchers are a bad idea," said Dr. Adrienne Battle, the interim director of Nashville Metro Public Schools. "They are not what we need for public schools. We owe it to this generation of students — and to all of those who follow them — to fight for a system that is fairly funded.”

Lee said in a video statement that the plan was crafted to benefit inner-city children in low-performing districts by giving them an opportunity at a better education.

Shelby County Schools countered that some rural districts have a similar percentage of schools performing in the bottom 10 percent statewide, but are not included the the ESA proposal.

"Should this legislation be signed into law, an immediate constitutional challenge is likely to ensure equal protection under the law," the district said in a statement. "Shelby County is no stranger to asserting and prevailing on such constitutional challenges as reflected in the November 27, 2012 decision in the case of Board of Education of Shelby County Tennessee et al v. Memphis City Board of Education by federal Judge Hardy Mays which rendered a similar bill void that was local in effect."

The Tennessee House and Senate both passed different versions of the bill last week. The differences in the language of the bills must now be reconciled before it can go to the governor.

On the local level here in Shelby County,  it's clear as a whole leadership isn't convinced this route  will benefit public schools — in fact, they believe it will trickle down negatively.

"I'm supportive of most initiatives but this one, I'm very disappointed," said Shelby County Commissioner Mark Billingsley. "Thirteen of us voted against this."

Billingsley said it will undercut public education, and commissioners have been vocal on that issue. They say it just seems rushed.

"There's not enough known about it at this time," Shelby County Commissioner Van Turner said. "We asked for it to go to a study committee just to see the long lasting effects on the SCS school system."

Under the governor's proposal, parents of students in certain low-performing school districts could receive up to $7,300 in state funds to spend on private
school tuition and other approved expenses, but they would need to meet certain income requirements.

Those in favor of the proposal think it opens a door for exploration.

"I applaud Governor Bill Lee, the House, and now the Senate for giving thousands of low-income children the chance to receive the quality education they deserve," said state Sen. Brian Kelsey, a co-sponsor of the Senate bill.

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