NASHVILLE – The Senate Education Committee today unanimously approved legislation, sponsored by Senator Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown) and Senator Reginald Tate (D-Memphis), calling for a five-year pilot program to offer Opportunity Scholarships to students eligible for free and reduced lunch that are currently enrolled in a public school that is identified as being in the bottom five percent of academic achievement. Senate Bill 161 creates the pilot program only in the school district with the most schools in the bottom five percent of the state in academic achievement.
“I would not be the person I am today without having received a scholarship to attend a private school,” said Senator Kelsey. “I desperately hope to provide that same opportunity to others. Opportunity Scholarships would provide the parents of students in the lowest performing schools with hope for a better education for their child. Children should not be forced to attend a failing school just because they live in a certain neighborhood.”
The program would take effect in the 2018-2019 school year and would be capped at no more than 2,500 students for the first year, and 5,000 thereafter. In addition to requiring assessments to measure student achievement growth, the program would be monitored and evaluated by the Tennessee Comptroller’s Office of Research and Education Accountability (OREA) for its effectiveness. If a participating school demonstrates achievement growth for scholarship students at a level of significantly below expectations for two years in a row, the State Commissioner of Education would suspend or terminate the school’s participation.
Pastor LaShundra Richmond, a Memphis educator and mother of a fourth grader who transferred her daughter to a private school, testified in favor of the bill. She said, “So often we hear the narrative around low performing schools and low performing students, but it really boils down to what best fits the needs of the individual student, and I believe Senate Bill 161 is an opportunity to empower parents to receive access to an option they wouldn’t ordinarily be able to afford.” Richmond has worked with the Achievement School District in advocacy with the Black Alliance for Educational Options.
“Some people are for this legislation and some are against it,” Kelsey added. “It is time to learn once and for all whether this program can work for Tennessee.”
House Education Administration and Planning Committee Chairman Harry Brooks (R-Knoxville) and Representative John DeBerry (D-Memphis) are sponsoring the legislation in the House of Representatives where the bill received unanimous subcommittee approval on Tuesday.
Senator Kelsey represents Cordova, East Memphis, and Germantown. He serves as a member of the Senate Education Committee and as Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.