Grandstanding Sen. Brian Kelsey sent yet another news release today pledging to press ahead with his voucher bill again next year in the legislature. He would give what he calls "Equal Opportunity Scholarships" to low-income kids in Nashville, Memphis, Knoxville and Chattanooga. The scholarships would amount to half the money that state and local school systems spend on each child. That's $5,400 in Nashville. And parents could use the money to send their child to any school—public or private, religious or otherwise.
“Equal Opportunity Scholarships provide impoverished children with hope for a better education and choice in the school they attend,” says Kelsey, who's from the wealthy Memphis suburb of Germantown. “Children should not be forced to attend a failing school just because they live in a certain neighborhood. Equal Opportunity Scholarships will allow all children to receive the quality education they deserve."
Republicans love to talk about vouchers. To voters, it makes them look like good-government reformers. They get to argue that free market competition—not more public funding—is what's needed to improve our education system. At the same time, they suck all the money out of public schools, screw with the teachers' union, and help their constituents pay to send their kids to private schools. It's a win-win!
Kelsey's bill, as written now, is limited. It's only for children who receive free-and-reduced-price lunches. How many would take advantage of it? The scholarships couldn't pay the tuition at many private schools. But you can bet this is only Step One for Kelsey. Once he enacts this bill, he'll be back with one that covers all children.
Kelsey's bill passed the Senate this year, but died in the House. Gov. Bill Haslam is thinking about supporting some form of voucher program in next year's legislative session.