School voucher proposal stirs up controversy

MEMPHIS, TN (WMC) - State lawmakers from Shelby County are in a war of words over a controversial school voucher proposal filed in Nashville by Senator Brian Kelsey.

Kelsey said it will open up options for students in failing schools, while one of his critics said he's targeting the very area he represents.

"This is a money-making venture," Representative Antonio Parkinson said. "This is not about education."

Parkinson isn't mincing words about the bill.

"It's not about choice. This is about the snatching of Shelby County citizens' taxpayer dollars to go into the private coffers of some of these private schools," he said.

Kelsey has filed voucher bills in years past, but the one at issue would create an "Opportunity Scholarship Pilot Program," starting with 5,000 vouchers in 2017 and eventually capping at 20,000 by the 2020-2021 school year.

The districts that would qualify is problematic for Parkinson. At this point, the statewide bill would only impact Shelby County Schools in Memphis. That's because the district has at least 30 schools performing in the bottom five percent of state academic rigors. Those are the requirements under Kelsey's proposal.

"This bill is put together as a pilot program, so we can find out once and for all: do opportunity scholarships work, or do they not? And the obvious first place to start is the place with the most private schools and the most failing schools," Senator Brian Kelsey said.

Kelsey said the bill would have statewide impact because Shelby County Schools are getting better, while other districts across the state are seeing some performance declines. Kelsey said he attended school on a scholarship and believes, given the election of Donald Trump, this is the type of education reform that Tennesseans want to see.

"These kids can't afford to wait five years for us to clean up some of our failing schools. We've got to give them immediate help now," said Kelsey.

Kelsey said other Memphis-area lawmakers are on board, citing Representative John DeBerry and Senator Reginald Tate as backers of the bill in the city of Memphis, along with Shelby County Representative Mark White.

The Shelby County School Board addressed voucher use in their 2017 legislative agenda, commenting that they oppose vouchers.

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