Senate Education Committee Chairman Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville) and Senator Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown) on Thursday introduced a compromise bill on opportunity scholarships in an effort to pass legislation this year to help low-income children. Rep. John DeBerry (D-Memphis) is the House sponsor of the bill.
The compromise bill follows closely the governor’s statement last week on school vouchers. The governor said he hopes to support a bill focused on low-income children in failing schools with annual program caps starting at 5,000 students and rising to 20,000 students.
The compromise bill, Senate Bill 2025, would give low-income students in the bottom 10% of schools in Tennessee an opportunity scholarship to attend the K-12 school of their choice. It would keep program caps starting from 5,000 students in year one and rising to 20,000 students in year three. If those caps are not reached each year, scholarships would be offered to other low-income children in those counties in which the bottom 10% of schools are located. The bill maintains the governor’s definition of low-income, which includes families eligible for free and reduced priced lunch, or $44,000 in annual income for a family of four.
The governor’s proposal last year was limited to students zoned to attend the bottom 5% of schools. The governor chose not to move forward with the bill after the Senate had proposed changes to it.
“This bill focuses on our neediest children,” said Senator Gresham. “The parents of these children deserve more choices, and their children deserve more options to receive a quality education.”
“This compromise is an effort by lawmakers to work this bill out,” said Rep. DeBerry. “We need to focus on what’s best for the children.”
“This is a workable compromise that will help thousands of low-income children while still respecting the governor’s concerns,” said Senator Kelsey.
Over 70% of the schools in the bottom 10% of Tennessee are located in Memphis. The counties with schools in the bottom 10% are Shelby, Davidson, Hamilton, Hardeman, Knox, Carter, Fayette, Grainger, Lake, & Morgan.
An example last week from Memphis highlights the need to include schools in the bottom 10%. At A.B. Hill Elementary School, a teacher was accused of shutting a five-year-old girl in a supply closest and then going home sick. Later the same day, another child was caught carrying a knife.
“To say that students at A.B. Hill Elementary don’t deserve school choice because their school is not in the bottom 5% is just wrong,” said Senator Kelsey.
“There are students in my district that deserve choices now. This is an idea whose time has come,” said Rep. DeBerry.
Over the past three years, the following states have either begun or expanded Opportunity Scholarships to include all low income students statewide: Indiana, North Carolina, Alabama, Louisiana, Virginia, Wisconsin, New Hampshire, and Ohio. Florida and Washington, D.C. have had statewide programs in place for years.
“We now have solid data from other states showing this program works to significantly boost graduation rates,” said Senator Gresham. "That's why so many other states are now passing this law."
Senator Gresham represents Chester, Decatur, Fayette, Hardeman, Hardin, Haywood, McNairy, and Henderson Counties. She is Chairman of the Senate Education Committee. Senator Kelsey represents Cordova, East Memphis, and Germantown. He is Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Representative DeBerry represents parts of South Memphis, North Memphis, and Midtown. He serves on the House Education Committee.