NASHVILLE - Gov. Bill Haslam's task force on a school voucher program for Tennessee finalized its recommendations today, agreeing any program should be limited to poorer students and that private schools need to be held accountable.
But in a sign of how difficult the issue may prove for both Haslam and state lawmakers, task force members split on many key details, including how much public money should accompany students seeking to attend private or religious schools.
Another area of contention is how broad any program should initially be and whether it should be restricted to low-income students who come from failing schools.
Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman, who chaired the group, later sought to minimize differences and said the recommendations provide his boss, Haslam, as well as lawmakers a range of options if they wish to create a voucher program.
"There's consensus there should be a screen for private schools on the front side," Haslam said. "There's consensus that private schools should be accountable for delivering high-quality results and evaluated accordingly. There's consensus that it should be limited to students who are low income."
He also said "there's consensus around the fact that the amount of scholarships should reach some minimum threshold."
Huffmann will take final discussions and incorporate them into the report before forwarding it to Haslam in the next two weeks.
Haslam is expected to take the report and make a decision on whether he will support legislative efforts next year by some fellow Republicans to pass a voucher program, which proponents have sought to rebrand as "opportunity scholarships."
The task force did not look at whether Tennessee should or should not create a voucher program.
Tennessee Education Association lobbyist Jerry Winters, a voucher critic, said, "I think the first decision that needs to be made is, do we need to go down this road? And I think the answer to that, considering what's going on in education right now in this state, the answer to that is clearly no."
He said the "details are what will kill this bill eventually."
In 2011, the state Senate passed a voucher pilot project affecting only the state's largest school systems, including Hamilton County's. But the bill didn't pass the House.
Haslam called for a time out on action for 2012, saying he wanted a task force to look at how a voucher system might work in Tennessee.