“This is an issue we must address,” state Sen. Jim Tracy (R-Shelbyville) said. “I don’t know whether we can simply amend the bill in such a way that will fix the issue at this point.”
State Sen. Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro) and Tracy each expressed their concerns Friday over Senate Bill 0196, commonly called the “School Voucher Bill” and sponsored by fellow Sen. Mark Norris (R-Collierville), which would give parents of children attending failing public schools a voucher with which to enroll in a private school.
State monies that would otherwise be spent on educating the student in public schools would then be diverted to qualifying private schools to pay private tuition for the student, in whole or in part.
Islamic schools throughout the state, including Nashville and Memphis where several of Tennessee’s lowest performing schools are located, would qualify to receive such students under the state-funded voucher program.
One such Islamic school, the Nashville International Academy, states that its vision is “to create a positive learning environment where students are committed to the teachings of the Quran and example of Prophet Muhammad.”
The school is located on Charlotte Pike and is accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, which qualifies it as a Category III private school through Tennessee statutes.
Other such schools include the Clara Muhammad School, a division of the Nation of Islam that operates a school in Nashville among its 74 other locations, and the Anoor Academy of Knoxville.
The voucher bill, which is a high-priority initiative by Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration, includes Category I, II, and III private schools as beneficiaries of state dollars through the proposed program.
All SACS-accredited institutions qualify as Category III schools under current state law, and Pleasant View School, an Islamic school in Memphis, has already made application for accreditation and expects approval in June, Assistant Principal Calvin Shaw said.
A competing bill, House Bill 190, would expand Haslam’s voucher proposal statewide instead of limiting the program to the worst performing school districts.
The Islamic Center of Murfreesboro has previously expressed interest in chartering its own Islamic school as well.
Tracy, a member of the Senate Education Committee, expressed “considerable concern” with directing tax dollars to Islamic schools, but he said disallowing Category III schools would also disqualify private schools, such as Montgomery Bell Academy, Ensworth and Harpeth Hall, all of which qualify for the program through SACS accreditation as well.
Ketron, who sponsored anti-Shariah Law legislation in 2009, said the voucher bills have advanced too quickly in the legislature this year and more consideration is needed on the measure.
“This issue gives me pause in voting for the governor’s voucher proposal,” he said. “These issues warrant further assessment.”
“What’s the rush? Do we need to send these proposals to summer study (committee)?” he questioned.
HB190 comes before the Senate Government Operations Committee and House Finance Subcommittee next week, with special interest groups such as StudentsFirst of Tennessee advocating for its passage with the hiring of multiple lobbyists and several media buys in key markets across the state.
“Though we have cleared some big obstacles, there are still more hurdles to go,” according to a recent StudentsFirst e-mail plea. “We are not across the finish line yet, but with your continued help we will get there.”