BY THE NUMBERS
$4,600: Voucher amount
24,301: Eligible students in Hamilton County
$8,709: Annual high school tuition at Chattanooga Christian
$20,245: Annual high school tuition at McCallie School
Nearly six of every 10 students in Hamilton County public schools would have been eligible to receive a $4,600 voucher to attend a private school under Republican-backed legislation that won surprise early approval recently.
Last week, GOP leadership shelved the bill for the year by sending it for a summer study by House Education Subcommittee members.
That relieved Democratic lawmakers and public school leaders, who criticized the measure as potentially draining public schools of state money and reversing progress being made under Race to the Top initiatives.
"Last year we had Race to the Top, this year we have dive to the bottom," said state Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga, a member of the Senate Education Committee who voted against the bill. "This year we have seen education policy that has been characterized by political payback and lack of dialogue."
But the bill's sponsor said he will bring it up again in the next legislative session.
The bill would have provided vouchers to all students in the state's four largest counties - Knox, Hamilton, Davidson and Shelby - who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. The $4,600 voucher was intended to cover 50 percent of tuition at a private school.
In the Chattanooga area, tuition can range from $8,709 a year for high school students at Chattanooga Christian to $20,245 a year at McCallie School.
Unlike other recent major education reforms included in Tennessee's Race to the Top application, a voucher program hadn't been discussed widely. And opponents argue it was driven by politics instead of well-informed education policy.
Hamilton County School Superintendent Jim Scales was among officials in Knox, Davidson and Shelby counties who wrote to Gov. Bill Haslam criticizing the legislation and begging the governor not to sign the bill if it passed the Republican-run General Assembly.
Under new reform laws, public schools are making a host of changes. Students are required to take more math and science classes. States are using more rigorous testing that is in line with national standards. Teachers and principals must be evaluated annually. Recent legislation has made it harder for teachers to get tenure, and teacher evaluations will now be tied to student progress.
"I am just puzzled with this type of legislation," said Scales. "It certainly puts negative overtones to what's going on in the state."
If the bill had passed, 57.29 percent of Hamilton County students, or 24,301, would have been eligible for a state-funded private school voucher. And since schools receive funding based on head count, the voucher program could have resulted in a dramatic loss of state money to the Hamilton County system.
Scales said he also was concerned that the bill could provide state money to religious schools.
"We are sending them to private schools where there is no accountability," he said. "Where is the separation of church and state?"
If the voucher program eventually is adopted, the accountability needed will come from parents, said state Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, who sponsored the bill for several years in the House before being elected to the Senate.
"When you introduce a little competition, it helps everyone to improve," said Kelsey, who plans to continue to push the bill. "There is no accountability in a monopoly system that forces parents to send their children to schools that have been on the failing schools list for five years in a row."