NASHVILLE - Republican Gov. Bill Haslam tonight defended his decision to go along with a school voucher program that would let low-income children in the state's worst-performing public schools attend private institutions at taxpayer expense.
Using the bully pulpit of his annual State of the State address to Tennessee lawmakers, Haslam said "some have said that this administration and General Assembly aren't committed to public education education, but that could not be further from the truth."
His administration has been "literally putting our money where our mouth is, even when other states haven't done so through tough budget times," Haslam said, noting the state's education funding formula has been fully funded in his three budgets.
Noting various initiatives his administration has pushed such as tougher teacher evaluations and expansions of publicly funded but private operated charter schools, Haslam said "this year we're proposed to offer another option for school choice" through vouchers.
"I've heard the argument that this kind of program will drain resources in the schools that them the most, but we're focusing on those schools."
He noted that last year, his administration committed $38 million over three years to help the bottom five percent of schools, the same schools that could lose students through the voucher program.
In a pre-buttal response to Haslam's address to a joint convention of the General Assembly, House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, charged the administration is "putting forward a radical, unfunded mandate in the form of a school voucher proposal designed to rip millions of dollars from public education."
He said it "will almost certainly mean a tax increase for our local governments, a dramatic decline in public school funding and, most importantly, it will leave thousands of students behind in failing schools."