Legislators doubt schools will reopen, question voucher rollout

By , Daily Memphian Updated: April 02, 2020 6:01 PM CT | Published: April 02, 2020 6:01 PM CT

State lawmakers are predicting schools won’t resume classes for the rest of the 2019-20 academic year because of the COVID-19 threat, and some are questioning whether the state Department of Education should be moving ahead with education savings accounts in the midst of the statewide emergency.

“I think that at the moment, total, complete concentration should be on surviving this year and helping our students get through this year,” said state Rep. John DeBerry, a House Education Committee member and the only Democrat to vote for Gov. Bill Lee’s education savings account program in 2019.

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House Education Committee Chairman Mark White and state Reps. Antonio Parkinson and DeBerry, all members of the committee, said they don’t think schools will be able to reopen for the rest of this session. They differ on whether the state should take applications for ESAs.

<strong>John DeBerry</strong>

John DeBerry

<strong>Mark White</strong>

Mark White

<strong>Antonio Parkinson</strong>

Antonio Parkinson

Schools are not set to open until April 24 after closing at the governor’s request, and with President Donald Trump eyeing an April 30 reopening of the economy, little time will be left to complete the year.

Gov. Lee said Thursday his administration is watching the situation closely and will make a decision soon based on the surge it is projecting.

White, an East Memphis Republican and Lee supporter, said he doesn’t believe schools can reopen.

“We already know that we’ve lost April, so that just leaves the month of May. … By the time we get to the peak and then come down the other side, we’re going to be into June anyway,” White said.

If the spread of the virus starts to ease, schools could hold graduation ceremonies or proms for seniors, White said, but he didn’t hold out much hope to start classes. Schools are typically fertile breeding grounds for viruses and the flu.

Said Parkinson: “I don’t think they’re going to open up again this year. And if not, I don’t care who you are – president, governor – you’re not going to dictate when thing opens back up.”

Only the lifting of the virus will “dictate” when the economy can reopen, regardless of predictions, said Parkinson, a Memphis Democrat.

“But if people are dying left and right and people are still being infected left and right, you ain’t opening up sh--,” he said.

DeBerry, a Memphis Democrat, pointed out the state of Georgia has canceled school for the year and is revving up virtual education and other alternatives to keep children on track and graduating.

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“I personally don’t see how it’s going to happen this year,” DeBerry said, noting he doesn’t want to second guess the governor. “But I don’t see where, considering where we are at this moment and the information assimilated at this moment, I don’t see how we’re going to be able to get the schools back open this year.”

The Tennessee Department of Education called this an “unprecedented time” for the state and nation and said it has been working with the governor’s office and other state and federal officials to provide school systems with support. The department declined to say what recommendation Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn would make.

“While school closures remain a local decision, the Department of Education has been working overtime to communicate with districts and issue guidance to help them make plans to ensure the continuation of academic instruction as well as critical meal and other services for students during times of school closure,” the department said in response to questions.

The state is making regular calls to district leaders and using a series of tool kits and online resources for schools and families, in addition to items on its website.

The state recently announced a partnership with ReadyRosie, an early education online program that offers short videos and free resources for children through the third grade. It is available at https://readyrosie.com/tn/. The state also is working the Public Broadcasting Service to offer classes on TV.

“It is everyone’s hope to resume school at the earliest possible date, when it is both safe to do so and when we can be sure of the health of our children, staff and communities. Under Gov. Lee’s leadership, the department will continue to monitor the evolving situation and act in the best interest of children,” the department said.

DeBerry questions voucher rollout

Even with classes canceled until April 24, the Tennessee Department of Education began offering an online tutorial this week for parents in Shelby County and Metro Nashville schools to fill out applications for the Education Savings Account program. Qualifying students would receive about $7,300 to enroll in private schools and to go toward other expenses starting with the 2020-21 school year.

Up to 5,000 students would be allowed to use the money in the first year of the program, which was the most hotly contested legislation to come before the General Assembly in the past two years. It passed only after former House Speaker Glen Casada held the vote open for nearly 45 minutes in April 2019 to work the chamber to break a 49-49 tie.

DeBerry suggested Thursday the Department of Education needs to put its priorities elsewhere during the COVID-19 crisis.

Lee said two weeks ago the state would move ahead with the ESA program since it had been approved in 2019. The next budget includes $39 million to fund it.

DeBerry has supported parental choice for nearly 20 years in an effort to help low-income students enter better schools and fully backs the governor’s effort. He pointed out Tennessee students set to graduate “have had their entire lives upended.” Meanwhile, teachers are coping with new teachings methods to maintain standards as the Legislature vacated Nashville to seek the safety of their home districts, DeBerry added.

“The whole economy, for the most part with the exception of essential services, is shut down. We’ve got people hurting,” DeBerry noted.

With that in mind, the Department of Education should put ESAs on hold, at least until the Legislature returns to the State Capitol, possibly by June 1, DeBerry said.

White, who helped pass the ESA law in 2019, said he understands concerns that the state is moving ahead with a controversial program in the midst of a crisis.

“I don’t think they’re focusing on it. This is the natural timeline anyway coming into April,” White said.

If parents are going to apply for the ESA funds in time to enroll their children in a private school by August, this is the time to fill out the application, he said.

Gov. Lee said Thursday the state isn’t as “focused” on the ESA program and what will happen next school year as much as it is working on this school year. He predicted the ESA program wouldn’t have as much involvement either.

Parkinson, in contrast, said the Department of Education’s work on the ESA program is misplaced in a time of crisis.

“You would think that all focus, all energy, would be pointed in the same direction that would be working toward killing this situation. Hell, you might not have any private schools for those vouchers to go to this time next year, based on the economic fallout of what’s happening with coronavirus,” Parkinson said.

The fact that “human capital” is being spent working on ESAs shows where the department’s priorities lie, he added.

State Rep. Kevin Vaughan, a Collierville Republican and Education Committee member who voted against the ESA program, said only: “I believe that is indicative of this governor’s commitment to vouchers.”

House candidate Jerri Green, a Democrat running against White for the District 83 seat, pointed out Lee recently said “hard times require hard choices” but that lawmakers who back the ESA program made the wrong decision.

“Funneling millions of our tax dollars into starting their pet voucher project should not be a priority when people’s livelihoods and lives are on the line. During a time when many parents (like me) are suddenly finding themselves in the position of being teachers and counselors, coaches and extracurricular specialists, this is mind boggling,” Green said.

Parents are finding out how difficult those jobs are “during normal times” and added that all the resources going toward the voucher program will be needed when students return to school.

Green doubted that children will be able to return to schools this year but said such a sacrifice will be worth it to save lives.


John DeBerry Kevin Vaughan Mark White Antonio Parkinson Jerri Green
Sam Stockard

Sam Stockard

Sam Stockard is a Nashville-based reporter with more than 30 years of journalism experience as a writer, editor and columnist covering the state Legislature and Tennessee politics for The Daily Memphian.


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