The bill, SB0485, styled the “Equal Opportunity Scholarship Act,” is sponsored by state Senator Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown) and numbers among its co-sponsors two other state senators from Shelby County — Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville) and Ophelia Ford (D-Memphis).
*Provides for state tuition grants to low-income public school students in districts with A.D.A.(Average Daily Attendance) of at least 38,000 students.
*Applies therefore only to Shelby County (Memphis); Davidson County (Nashville); Knox County (Knoxville); Hamilton County (Chattanooga).
The tuition grants could be equal to as much as “half the amount spent on each child by the local school system,” Kelsey explained to the committee. The grants could be applied by recipient students to public schools in other districts, to public charter schools, or to participating private schools, including religious institutions.
Testifying on the bill’s behalf before the committee were two parents — one with a child in a Catholic parochial school in Memphis and another who wished to be able to enroll her child in such a school — and Henry Littleton, administrator for Our Lady of Sorrows parochial school in Memphis.
Testifying against the bill was Jerry Winters, executive director of the Tennessee Education Association (TEA), who said, “We can call this all kinds of fancy names….This is just a very blatant voucher bill….This is public money going to religious schools. That is a door, if you open it here today, or whenever you might open it, you will never get it closed….If there’s not a constitutional issue here, there’s not a constitutional issue anywhere.”
After brief discussion, the bill passed the Senate Education Committee on party-line vote — 5 ayes, 2 nays (from Sens. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga,and Charlotte Burks, D-Montery) 1 not-voting (by Sen. Reginald Tate, D-Memphis) — and was sent on to Senate Calendar Committee.
Meanwhile, the state House version of the bill, HB0388, will be considered by the House Education Subcommittee next Wednesday.