Education reform bills melt down, then so does their sponsor

After a House committee yanked the life out of two of Rep. John DeBerry’s education bills, he snatched up his things, quietly stormed down the hallway to his office and slammed his heavy wooden door behind him.

The bang of the door and the crash of his things hitting the ground inside the small ground-level office of the calm yet emotional Memphis Democrat rang out in the hallway.

Moments before, no one on the 12-member Finance, Ways and Means Subcommittee Tuesday would give DeBerry a motion to take up his bills. Beyond the procedural lack of the motion making an up-or-down vote on his bills impossible, members failing to offer a motion on a bill is one of the chief insults a committee can bestow upon a bill or its sponsor.

DeBerry finds himself politically straddling fences in the General Assembly. Last election cycle, he was the chief beneficiary of campaign contributions from education reform advocates that tend to find more allies on the Republican side of the aisle. That, and his support for education reforms like vouchers and school choice, put his political views fundamentally at odds with the vast majority of his fellow Democrats.

The lack of a motion meant the committee killed two of his bills in the hearing Tuesday afternoon. One would have allowed the school districts charged with turning around the state’s worst schools — which largely sit in Memphis — to recruit students outside their school zones. Another would have lowered the voting threshold needed for parents to turn around management or operators of their struggling schools. Both were controversial, although less so than other education bills up for consideration this year.

Although the bills were on their way to the Senate floor, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey said he wasn’t familiar with the legislation and isn’t surprised by the decisive move in committee to kill legislation when the legislature is looking to adjourn.

“We’re at the end of session where that’s what happens,” Ramsey said. “Bottom line is this is the time of year where stuff like that happens. That’s the reason why we have two houses, that’s the reason we have separation of powers, so nobody rubber stamps what the other person does.” 

Earlier in the morning, another bill DeBerry was rooting for also died. Noting a lack of support on the full Finance Committee, Rep. Bill Dunn withdrew a bill that would have allowed the state to pay private-school tuition for students attending the state’s worst schools.