While Tennessee lawmakers will go home this year without passing school vouchers into law, they’re not leaving the idea behind.

In the coming months, lawmakers who backed the proposal to start a five-year pilot program in Memphis will fine-tune it. One goal: clearing up questions about what kind of tests students need to take so lawmakers can determine if the program is “working.”

“The thing I want to have clarity on is … the language in regard to accountability,” said the House sponsor Harry Brooks, a Knoxville Republican, after he announced that he was pushing pause on vouchers for the year.

“How do we create accountability on the money that’s being spent in private schools? I’ve had a request from folks on different sides of the issue to say we need to look at that.”

Vouchers have never been an easy sell in Tennessee, with legislation falling short nearly every year since 2010. But it came close in 2016, with one of the bill’s sponsors estimating that he was only two votes shy of getting it passed. This year’s sponsors tweaked the bill to be a targeted pilot in hopes of making it more palatable to lawmakers on the fence.

But a lengthy battle over a new gas tax delayed the voucher vote, giving advocates less time to decide how to assess whether the vouchers help students — an important question because the proposal would create only a five-year pilot that lawmakers would expand depending on the results.

Many private schools are wary of state tests, which they say do not match up with their academic standards. And some lawmakers feared such a requirement would cause the standardization of private schools — something that appears to have happened in Indiana, where private schools that accept vouchers must test all students.

Brooks said that in his mind, state testing in grades 3-8 is a done deal — even though the bill was amended to remove the state testing requirement for all grades shortly before he pushed pause on the proposal until next year.

End-of-course testing for high school students is another story, he said. Private schools often have different graduation requirements and course offerings than public high schools, which come with different material to be tested. Brooks said he and other lawmakers would look into whether high schools that accept vouchers should be exempt from a testing requirement — and what, if anything, should replace tests to measure students’ success.

Tennessee’s voucher proponents think they can overcome those barriers before they pick up the voucher debate next year, hashing out a policy that appeals to private schools while appeasing lawmakers hungry for data.

“People want to see students go to these schools and do well,” said Mendell Grinter, the director for the pro-voucher advocacy group Campaign for School Equity. He said the bill will be helped by having hard conversations around testing in the offseason, rather than the crunch of the legislation session.

Other states have negotiated this terrain successfully. Two of the country’s largest and most recent programs, in Indiana and Louisiana, require private schools to publicly post state test scores. And the country’s oldest voucher programs, in Ohio and Wisconsin, have moved toward more accountability, both without losing private schools along the way.
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Graphic includes voucher programs targeted at low-income students. It excludes programs for students with disabilities or rural students without public school access. Data: National Conference of State Legislatures. Graphic by: Sarah Glen/Chalkbeat
Graphic includes voucher programs targeted at low-income students. It excludes programs for students with disabilities or rural students without public school access. Data: National Conference of State Legislatures. Graphic by: Sarah Glen/Chalkbeat

“It’s hard at a time when traditional schools and charter schools are held accountable in such a visible way to make the argument that private schools getting public dollars shouldn’t have to,” said Michael Petrilli, president of the pro-voucher Thomas B. Fordham Institute. “I think we’re going to continue to see that in voucher programs.”

As states overhaul their accountability systems for public schools to include more measures than just test scores, a requirement under the new federal education law, lawmakers could consider doing the same for private schools in Tennessee.

“A pilot program with a rigorous evaluation makes a lot of sense,” said Douglas Harris, a researcher at the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans, who studied Louisiana’s voucher program and found that students using vouchers scored far below their public school peers on state tests. “Using multiple measures makes even more sense.”

But Harris cautioned against letting schools choose their own tests, something that schools in Florida are allowed to do as long as the tests are nationally normed. Some Tennessee voucher advocates, including Brian Kelsey, the Senate sponsor, have pointed to that model as offering accountability while preserving flexibility for private schools, but Harris said that it’s hard to draw meaningful conclusions from a smorgasbord of tests.

If Tennessee does figure out how to craft a pilot, a full-blown, statewide voucher program could easily follow. That’s what happened in Louisiana, which started with a pilot in New Orleans; Ohio, which started out with a smaller program in Cleveland; and Wisconsin, which started out with vouchers only in Milwaukee.

Brooks says Tennessee lawmakers wouldn’t allow vouchers statewide if they don’t succeed in Memphis — and that’s why it’s important to figure out how to measure outcomes.

“If it doesn’t work, then it answers the question,” he said. “It’s why it’s called a pilot.”