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Voucher Talk Resumes

“Tennessee planning for school vouchers nears final stages”
by Richard Locker
Commercial Appeal
October 1, 2012

A special commission appointed by Gov. Bill Haslam is about to begin drafting its final recommendations on how a Tennessee school-voucher program would operate, including who would be eligible for taxpayer dollars for private school tuition.

The voucher issue returns to the state legislature in January after a year’s hiatus. The state Senate narrowly approved a voucher bill in 2011, sponsored by Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, that allowed students whose family incomes were low enough to qualify them for free or discounted school lunches to take half the taxpayer money spent per-pupil in their school district to pay private school tuition.

House leaders were more reluctant to open a political battle over vouchers and just before the 2012 session opened, Haslam asked lawmakers to stand down and let him appoint a task force to examine the issue and make recommendations this fall for the 2013 legislature to consider.

He said Tennessee needed time for the major changes in state education policy to get up and running before embarking on another. The earlier changes included the end of collective bargaining by teachers, major changes to teacher tenure and performance evaluations, and higher standards for a revised core curriculum for K-12, plus a shift from enrollment-based funding for higher education to performance-based funding.

The “Governor’s Task Force on Opportunity Scholarships” held its fourth meeting Wednesday and although differences among its members continue, its chairman, state Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman, made it clear that the panel’s charge from the governor is not to debate whether to have a voucher program but rather how a program should operate — its legal parameters — if lawmakers create one.

Key issues include when to launch a program; whether to put family-income limits on participation; whether to limit participation to students from low-performing public schools; the size of the “scholarships” — the amount of public money diverted to private schools per student; whether to start a program on a limited, experimental “pilot” basis in a few districts; whether to allow for-profit private schools to participate; and what kind of accountability measures should be put in place, if any, for the private schools accepting the public money.

In addition to limiting eligibility to low-income students, the bill senators approved in 2011 would have limited the program initially to Tennessee’s four largest counties, Shelby, Davidson, Knox and Hamilton, on a trial basis. School districts in those counties have formed a Coalition of Large School Systems, which has opposed vouchers because they divert public funding away from their districts and to private schools.

Advocates of vouchers say they promote school choice by allowing students from low- and moderate-income families to attend private schools that will accept them.

Despite the governor’s assignment for the task force, he said he’s still not sure if he will fully support a voucher plan. “A lot of it depends on what it looks like,” he said.

Joining the large school systems in opposing vouchers is the Tennessee Education Association. “They hurt public schools in a lot of ways,” said TEA lobbyist Jerry Winters. “They directly pull money from public education and send the dollars to private and parochial schools. They also have the great possibility of cherry-picking students and pulling away parental support for the schools left behind.

The nine-member task force includes state education officials, legislators, education policy experts and a representative of the Coalition of Large School Systems. It will meet again in October to draft its final recommendations.

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