Lawmaker spotlight

Four questions about education with state Rep. Harold Love

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Rep. Harold Love Jr., a Nashville Democrat serving on House education committees, has mementos in his office from when his father served in the legislature from 1968 to 1994.

Rep. Harold Love Jr. inherited his passion for public education from his parents.

His mother ran a program to increase college access. His father, Harold Love Sr., represented Tennessee’s 54th district in Nashville from 1968 to 1994.

As a middle school student, he used to do his homework in Nashville’s Legislative Plaza while his father was in committee meetings. “We’d discuss what he did,” he said. “That’s why this work … is really part of me.”

Today, the Nashville Democrat represents Tennessee’s 58th district, which rings central Nashville. His office is a stone’s throw from his father’s old office, and his constituents reach him at his dad’s former phone number.

A member of House education committees since his election in 2012, Love says his family is a living testimony to the value of public schools. He and his four sisters are all graduates of Tennessee State University. His niece Christiane Buggs is a school board member in Nashville.

“I’ve got to push for public education,” says Love, 44, who is also pastor of an African Methodist Episcopal church. “It’s what pushed my father out of poverty. He was born in Nashville in 1919. Being African-American in Nashville was not easy. There was no indoor plumbing. But there was public education.

“Education can change your trajectory. Money comes and goes, but education transforms you,” he said.

Chalkbeat sat down with Rep. Love to talk about his late father, why he visits so many schools, and what’s on the horizon for this legislative session.

What’s your experience with Tennessee schools?

First off, I’m the product of Nashville public schools, having gone to kindergarten through high school here. I graduated from White’s Creek High School.

My mother, for 47 years, was the director of (Upward Bound), a program designed to increase the achievement of high school and middle school students. … She was particularly targeting first-generation, lower income students. So I was always exposed to conversations about the need for increased funding.

When I ran for office, education became the cornerstone of my campaign, primarily because I realized that I had greatly benefitted from growing up in a house without distractions that other children had to endure. Both parents were employed full-time. My sisters went to college. Both parents had master’s degrees. So college was not a question of if, but where. … Education was at the forefront of my campaign because I saw the achievement growing between the children in my neighborhood and children in other neighborhoods. By virtue of having a legislative district with seven colleges, I felt that it was important to, as best I could, make the connection between K-12 and higher education, and expose kids to the possibility of going to college, and making it a real thing and not just some fantasy.

How do you prepare yourself to make decisions on education policy?

(When I was elected), I realized it would be for me a good move to visit some actual schools, to sit down with principals and teachers and listen to some of their concerns before I started writing up bills that would affect their lives. … In Nashville, there are 153 public schools. There are 10 members of the legislature from Nashville. On average, everyone should have 15 schools. I have 25. I would hope and wish that every member of the education committee would visit public schools to not make a critique … but to see what is being doing right, to see the possibilities and potential for growth and success.

First, I ask how (each bill) affects my constituents and my students, and then the next question is, will it benefit the person who is carrying the bill? You have to consider folks outside of your district. A good number of the controversial bills oftentimes just deal with Memphis and Nashville, but it’s a balance.

Where do you get your ideas for legislation?

One bill I passed last year allows high school students to take computer science and computer programming as one of the electives required for high school graduation. Before my bill passed, you could take a class on computer basics like how to keyboard, where the mouse is, but not about coding and programming and computer-aided design. (That) bill came from a meeting at the White House. The president’s officer of intergovernmental affairs was pushing this initiative called “Computer Science for All,” and he asked a couple of us from the state level to run bills for computer science. I thought, this makes sense, and had it drafted.

Sometimes they come from constituents, from ideas I’ve had with teachers, students and parents. Sometimes, though not often, I’ll have a wonderful epiphany. I’ll ask, what’s going on, and how can we fix it.

What’s on the horizon for education this session?

This might not seem education-related, but it is. I have a bill to eliminate solitary confinement for persons in  juvenile detention facilities. If you don’t put a juvenile into solitary confinement, they may be able to be released from the juvenile system feeling less alienation from their peers … so when they get back into the education system, they’re less belligerent.

And vouchers will come up again. [Love has consistently opposed voucher legislation.] I have a new committee assignment; I’m on finance, ways and means. Vouchers will come to that committee because it has a fiscal note. That will be different because it’s not just education folks. I’ll have to feel my way through how they deal with it, and ask lawmakers why they feel this bill is merited at this time. If nothing else, it helps draw attention to the need for folks to pay attention to what’s being voted on and what effect it will have, not just on your constituents, but the constituents of your colleagues.

College Access

In-state tuition bill for Tennessee’s undocumented immigrants clears first legislative hurdle

Undocumented students from across Tennessee pose Tuesday on the steps of the State Capitol with Gov. Bill Haslam, Rep. Mark White, and Sen. Todd Gardenhire. Brought to Nashville by the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, the students met with lawmakers and lobbied for a bill that would give them access to in-state college tuition, regardless of their immigration status. The students came from Chattanooga, Knoxville, Johnson City, Memphis, Murfreesboro, Nashville, and Sevierville. White and Gardenhire are the bill's sponsors.

Seventeen-year-old Nellely Garcia watched with elation Tuesday as a bill that would make it easier for her to attend college cleared its first hurdle in Tennessee’s legislature.

Nellely Garcia is a senior at Wooddale High School in Memphis and does not have legal status to receive in-state college tuition when she graduates.

An immigrant from Mexico who has lived in Memphis since she was a baby, Garcia traveled to Nashville during her spring break to support legislation that would provide in-state tuition to any student who attends a Tennessee high school for at least three years, regardless of their immigration status. The bill is aimed at students like Garcia, who has attended public school in Tennessee since kindergarten after her parents moved their family to Memphis without legal permission.

The measure passed 4-1 in the House Education Administration and Planning Subcommittee, with Rep. Dawn White, a Republican from Murfreesboro, casting the sole nay vote. It’s sponsored by Rep. Mark White, a Germantown Republican, and Sen. Todd Gardenhire, a Republican from Chattanooga, who have championed the proposal since 2015. That year, it passed in the Senate but fell one vote short of clearing the House.

“This bill will give us a fair chance to have a higher education and pursue our dreams,” said Garcia, a senior at Wooddale High School. “We have the ability to contribute. We want the opportunity to give back.”

But Garcia understands that the legislative process is a marathon and not a sprint. The measure must pass a full House committee and a Senate panel before heading to both chambers. Gov. Bill Haslam has said he would sign the bill if it reaches his desk.

“This is the first step. We’ve got several more committees to pass, but certainly this is an amazing start,” said Stephanie Teatro, a leader with the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, speaking to dozens of cheering high school students after Tuesday’s vote.

The bill is supported by most of the state’s public colleges and universities and, based on a 2017 poll by Vanderbilt University, about 72 percent of Tennesseans favor it, too.

Rep. Dawn White voted against the measure, arguing that Tennessee taxpayers should not give a tuition break to students who are in the country illegally.

Garcia has a different perspective. “I’ve lived here all my life. I may not have the papers, but I’m as American as my other classmates,” she told Chalkbeat.

But she likely won’t be able to afford college, she said, without in-state tuition, which cuts the cost of attending a public college or university by a third. Garcia hopes to study psychology or American history at the University of Memphis or Christian Brothers University.

“If I don’t go to college, my choices are really to work or get married. That’s not what I want to do right now,” she said. “I want to get in-state tuition like my other classmates.”


School vouchers hit snag in Tennessee as sponsor announces he won’t advance bill

PHOTO: The Commercial Appeal
Sen. Brian Kelsey, a Republican from Germantown, has sponsored several voucher bills in the Tennessee General Assembly.

The push to allow some Tennesseans to use private-school vouchers has hit a roadblock that could stall voucher legislation for a fourth year.

Sen. Brian Kelsey said Monday that he won’t ask a Senate committee to take up his bill — which would pilot a program in Memphis — when the legislature reconvenes its two-year session in January.

“I listen to my community. Right now, there’s not enough parental support,” the Germantown Republican lawmaker told Chalkbeat after sharing the news with Shelby County’s legislative delegation.

Rep. Harry Brooks, who sponsors the proposal in the House, did not immediately return phone calls about whether he will seek a new Senate sponsor. Kelsey would not comment if he would support the legislation if another state senator picked up the mantle.

Kelsey’s retreat calls into question the future of the voucher legislation in Tennessee, home to a perennial tug-of-war over whether to allow parents to use public money to pay for private school tuition. It also comes as U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has focused national attention on the policy.

This year, the proposal reached as far as the Senate finance committee and a House finance subcommittee before Brooks asked to delay a vote until 2018. At the time, he cited the need to work out details about private school accountability, specifically for high school students.

Kelsey said Monday he would not withdraw the bill or his sponsorship, but also doesn’t plan to bring the measure to a vote in the finance committee, which would halt the proposal in its tracks unless a new sponsor comes aboard.

This week’s development signals that the momentum for vouchers may be shifting for now.

Nationally, recent studies show that achievement dropped, at least initially, for students using vouchers in Louisiana, Indiana, Ohio and Washington, D.C. And in Tennessee, one group that has lobbied annually for vouchers is taking a step back from the issue, according to its executive director.

“I can tell you that Campaign for School Equity will not be pursuing or supporting any voucher legislation this year. It’s a shift in focus for us …,” Mendell Grinter said, adding that the Memphis-based black advocacy group is switching emphasis to student discipline and other issues of more concern to its supporters.

Even so, DeVos urged Tennessee lawmakers to pass vouchers during her first visit to the state last month. “Too many students today … are stuck in schools that are not working for them,” she told reporters. (The U.S. Department of Education cannot mandate voucher programs, but could offer incentives to states to pass them.)

Vouchers have passed three times in Tennessee’s Senate, only to stall each time in the House. Proponents had thought that limiting vouchers to Memphis would garner the legislative support needed this year, but the Kelsey-Brooks bill didn’t sit well in the city that would be most impacted. Opposition swelled among county commissioners, local legislators, and numerous school boards across Greater Memphis.

During discussions Monday with Shelby County lawmakers, Bartlett Superintendent David Stephens said vouchers would be a blow to districts already unsteady from years of reform efforts.

“Any time we take dollars out of public schools, we’re hurting public schools,” Stephens told Chalkbeat later. “We don’t need to do anything to hurt or cut funding there. When we talk in Shelby County about school choice, we have the municipal districts, charter schools, the county school system. That’s choice.”

Rep. Antonio Parkinson, a Memphis Democrat, said opposition from the Bartlett district appeared to carry more weight with Kelsey than did Shelby County Schools, which has publically been on the record against the legislation from the start.

“Challenges (that Stephens) talked about were challenges we’ve been screaming about from SCS’ standpoint for years,” Parkinson said.

Rep. Bill Dunn, a Knoxville Republican who has championed vouchers for years, said he’ll be disappointed if a bill doesn’t come up for a vote in 2018. “The whole reason for vouchers is to give a chance to these kids who are doomed unless they get in a different educational environment,” he said.

Tennessee’s legislature reconvenes on Jan. 9.

Chalkbeat reporter Caroline Bauman contributed to this report.