Brian Kelsey's Excellent Adventure on Kilimanjaro

Halted in his pursuit of school vouchers in 2013, the Germantown state senator mountain-climbs his way into a state of optimism for the 2014 General Assembly.



Can Senator Kelsey parlay his climb into a triumph for vouchers?
  • Can Senator Kelsey parlay his climb into a triumph for vouchers?

State Senator Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown) has evidently, like Ernest Hemingway before him, some sense of what the snows of Kilimanjaro are like. In a recent email to supporters, he conveyed news of “a 5-day hike to the top of Mt .Kilimanjaro, which at 19,341 feet, is the tallest mountain in Africa.”

Kelsey went on to posit a moral to this story: “The lesson it taught me in persistence is one that will prove helpful in continuing the fight for opportunity scholarships for low-income children in Tennessee.”

What are called ”opportunity scholarships” in Kelsey’s lexicon are referred to as “school vouchers” by others, particularly the opponents of the senator’s several bills over the years to extend public education funds to private institutions. In his newsletters, Kelsey refers to such opponents in Tennessee as “those who view the local school district as an employment agency rather than an education agency.”

Governor Bill Haslam, the head of state government and the titular head in Tennessee of Kelsey’s party, would not ordinarily be classified that way, and Kelsey presumably didn’t mean to be referring to Haslam in the aforementioned description of his legislative adversaries.

Yet it was Haslam who pointedly obstructed Kelsey’s last effort to pass a voucher bill. Early in the 2013 session of the General Assembly, the governor had approved a modest pilot effort toward establishing a voucher system, one that would provide modest-sized vouchers for 5,000 low-income students currently enrolled in schools certified by the state as failing.

That was not enough for Kelsey, who counter-posed a bill that would have greatly expanded the amount of vouchers and made them available to children in families making as much as $75,000 a year.

Finding Kelsey unwilling to compromise, and with time running out on the session, Haslam made it clear that he did not want alternate voucher legislation of the scope proposed by Kelsey put forward.

The co-sponsor of the Kelsey bill, state Senator Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville) got the message and professed a willingness to back off, as did Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey, who had preferred a stronger voucher bill. Kelsey, however, remained intent on going forward.

The result was that the governor put his foot down and called for his own measure to be withdrawn, while announcing it was too late to work out any other version, and the session ended with no voucher bill at all.

Kelsey's somewhat dismissive account of the situation runs this way: "The governor offered his own proposal in 2013, but his bill would have benefited only a few hundred children in Memphis. His bill passed the House Education Committee, but then he postponed the bill until next year before it could be taken up for consideration by the Senate. One step forward and a half-step slide backward."

In the newsletter, Kelsey finds inspiration in his struggle up Kilimanjaro: “Persistence pays off! Over and over during my hike up Kilimanjaro, my guide repeated, "po-le, po-le," which means "slowly, slowly" in Swahili. He knew that climbing the mountain too fast would lead to altitude sickness and would leave me short of my goal….

“Persistence pays off! Once I finally reached the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro, the views from above the clouds made all the hard work worthwhile. I hope that I will have a similar experience with opportunity scholarships in 2014….”

The senator concludes his account with these lines from Hemigway’s classic “The Snows of Kilimanjaro”:

"There, ahead, all he could see, as wide as all the world, great, high, and unbelievably white in the sun, was the square top of Kilimanjaro. And then he knew that there was where he was going." -

There’s a problem with the analogy, though: Mt. Kilimanjaro figures in the Hemingway story as the unachieved goal of the character Harry Street, who lies dying at the foot of the mountain and, at the end of the story, perishes without having attained his goal. Indeed, Kilimanjaro is treated as the very symbol of the unattainable.

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