NASHVILLE — Gov. Bill Haslam says his goal of ensuring that all tax-supported K-12 schools are accountable for student achievement underlies his moves to cap enrollment at a low-performing online school and proceed more cautiously than some like with his school voucher program.
"We've introduced accountability in the process everywhere," the Republican governor told Chattanooga Times Free Press editors and reporters last week.
Haslam has introduced legislation to cap enrollment at the Tennessee Virtual Academy in Union County. For-profit company K12 Inc. runs the online academy under contract with the school system and accepts K-8 students from around the state.
Haslam said he and state Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman acted after the rapidly growing school achieved dismal results in its first year of value-added testing, which measures student gains.
"I think one of the messages of our administration, hopefully, is it's about outcomes, not inputs," Haslam said. "And if we have places that are getting state dollars and students, it needs to be about outcomes."
The administration's bill caps new online schools' enrollment at 1,500 until they meet state standards for student learning.
That won't apply to the Tennessee Virtual Academy, which currently has 3,200 children enrolled.
Another provision says no more than 25 percent of online schools' enrollment may be out-of-county students, at least until the school proves it can meet state achievement standards.
That provision wouldn't apply to current classes at the Tennessee Virtual Academy, but it could affect future students.
Haslam also introduced a limited school voucher program for low-income families. Children in the bottom 5 percent of schools -- known as "priority schools" -- could use public money to attend religious and other private schools.
There are 83 priority schools statewide and six in Hamilton County.
The program is limited to 5,000 students in the 2013-14 school year, which begins in August. That would grow to 20,000 by the 2016 school year.
Before accepting any vouchers or "scholarships" from public school students, private schools would have to agree to administer annual state assessments or nationally recognized norm-referenced tests, approved by the state school board, that measure students' progress through a value-added assessment system.
"We thought it was smarter to [say] let's wade in, see impact; does it make a difference in performance for that student?" Haslam said.
There is also a political calculus to his approach, Haslam said.
Opponents, including local school systems and the Tennessee Education Association, "say this will kill our existing school systems because you're going to be pulling those kids out," the governor said. "And other people say no, this is going to be the world's greatest because ... school systems will have to compete for kids and it'll make it better."
Republican Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, of Blountville, said he and other GOP senators want a bigger voucher program that isn't limited to students at the lowest-performing public schools.
"I've had blunt decisions with him about this," Ramsey said last week.
Haslam called it an "interesting situation."
"We have people, even in our party, who are on both sides of this, some of whom have said, 'You didn't go big enough,' and others saying, 'I don't want a voucher, period."
House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, is carrying the administration's packet of bills, including the voucher legislation. He said he is comfortable with Haslam's limited approach.
In 2011, Senate Republicans passed a voucher program hitting the state's largest school systems. But it didn't pass the GOP-controlled House.
Ramsey said Haslam seems to be trying to craft a bill that will pass in the House.
"Well, that's usually not the way we do things," he said. "Our Founding Fathers set up two bodies for reason.
"We'll pass our bill. They'll pass a bill, and we'll have a compromise in the middle."
"But," he added, "I think we'll pass a stronger bill on our side."
Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...