Shelby County to Knox: Stop messing with Memphis

Betty Bean
Government/Politics columnist

Harry Brooks’ Opportunity Scholarship Pilot Program was drafted to provide private school scholarships to students in public school districts that have at least 30 schools performing in the state’s bottom 5 percent.

In other words, Memphis.

And although they didn’t exactly tell him to take his bill and shove it, droves of Memphians traveled to Nashville last week to attend the Education Administration & Planning Committee meetings so they could let Brooks know what they think of his Memphis-only voucher plan:

“Our community has to suffer the consequences of your decisions,” one parent said. “We have the highest poverty rate in any county of this size in the state of Tennessee. That’s real and with that comes challenges. When you take dollars out, you’re taking resources.”

Democratic Rep. Johnnie Turner, a retired educator who represents an inner-city Memphis district, said the voucher bill will siphon $19 million from the resources of the schools she represents.

“Leave Shelby County alone,” Turner said. “Go pick somebody else’s schools to be your whipping dog. Why do we always have to be the dumping ground?”

Brooks responded that his bill is about giving families the choice of removing their children from failing schools and sending them to private schools. His co-sponsor John DeBerry (a Democrat and a staunch supporter of charter and voucher bills) was pretty much Brooks’ only Memphis ally. DeBerry accused the crowd of “acting as though the zombies are going to come out and the moon is going to turn to blood if we pass vouchers.”

Raumesh Akbari, another Memphis Democrat, challenged Brooks to show consistent proof that vouchers work.

“You’re stepping into an area that is not your area, and you’re coming into my county and you’re telling us how we’re going to handle it. … If you want vouchers, include your county in it.”

Another big stumbling block is end of term testing. Children receiving vouchers will be required to take the TNReady test. Non-voucher students won’t.

Republican Ron Lollar, from Bartlett, was no kinder to Brooks than the rest of the Shelby County delegation.

“Everybody should have to take the same test. … There’s words for what you do to one child that you don’t do to all of them, and I think the courts will have something to say about that.”

Knox County school board member Jennifer Owen makes a weekly trip to Nashville to observe educational issues being debated. It was standing room only inside the hearing room, where the crowd was admonished not to cheer. Not so with the large overflow crowd in the hall, watching the proceedings on wall-mounted TV sets, cheering their side on.

“There were about 40 people in the hall when I went in. When I came out there were at least 65 or 70, and they were overwhelmingly anti-voucher,” she said.

In the end, HB0126 passed on a voice vote.

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