Tennessee legislators gear up for battle over school voucher programs

Tennessee legislators gear up for battle over school voucher programs

November 14th, 2011 by Andy Sher in News

Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey speaks to reporters in his office in Nashville, Tenn., on Tuesday, March 22, 2011. (AP Photo/Erik Schelzig)


Tennessee, with some of the nation's worst student achievement scores, has enacted ambitious reforms that helped win a $500 million federal Race to the Top grant and put the state on the national stage. They include:

• Tougher teacher tenure laws

• More-rigorous curriculum

• New teacher evaluation system

• Putting consistently failing schools in a special district

• Abolishing collective bargaining

• Expanding charter schools

Source: Tennessee Legislature

POLL: Should the state give low-income students vouchers to attend private schools?

NASHVILLE -- Tennessee's House and Senate Republican leaders could be at odds next year over legislation requiring school voucher programs in Hamilton County and Tennessee's three other largest school systems.

Republican Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey says he is fired up about new legislation that retools a bill to let children from lower-income families use taxpayer dollars to attend private and religious schools.

"Something I am big on is starting at least a pilot project for school choice here in Tennessee," said Ramsey, the Senate speaker, who calls vouchers "educational scholarships."

"If you have children trapped in failing schools and their parents don't have the means to allow them to go to an alternative, then we need to start with a small pilot project [in the four largest systems] ... and be able to allow those students to have some choice," Ramsey said.

Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, last month introduced a revamped version of his voucher bill, the Equal Opportunity Scholarship Act.

The bill requires Hamilton, Knox, Davidson and Shelby County schools to offer vouchers to students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch programs because of family income -- $42,000 for a family of four -- or who attend failing schools.

Each voucher would be worth 50 percent of per-pupil funding in local school systems. That comes to $4,600 in Hamilton County schools, which critics say doesn't cover the cost of many private schools.

The bill requires private and religious schools that accept voucher students to administer Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program tests in grades 3-8 and end-of-high-school exams. Teachers in those schools would not be subject to the state teacher evaluations.

Hamilton County school board members last month voted 7-1 to oppose the voucher program.

Capitol Concerns

Similar legislation passed the Senate early this year but stalled in the GOP-dominated House. Concerns and opposition came from Republican and Democratic lawmakers, large school systems and the Tennessee Education Association, among others.

Republican House Speaker Beth Harwell is less enthusiastic than Ramsey about the revamped bill.

While not ruling it out in 2012, Harwell said, "If we're going to proceed, we need to be very careful; there are a lot of questions."

She said lawmakers this year "put a lot of additional work" on public school teachers with a new evaluation process.

Letting students "go into a private system where those teachers don't have to have those same systems, I think it's sending a mixed message to our teachers," Harwell said.

"We have a lot to do in public education yet, and I'd like to stay focused on what we're doing in our public schools," Harwell said.

She noted that lawmakers this year passed an "excellent public charter school bill" that she believes is "more of the answers to our public school needs."

House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, also sounded cautious. Echoing Harwell, McCormick said the state has made major changes in education recently.

"We need to go carefully and not get in a hurry based on political pressures to make more changes," he said.

Lawmakers should "certainly consider this voucher program, but I for one am in no hurry to implement it next year," McCormick added.

Haslam Holds Back

Senate Speaker Pro Tempore Bo Watson, R-Hixson, voted for the earlier voucher bill and supports the new version.

"My fundamental question is, if people are locked into a failing school only because they're low income and every other economic strata has a choice ... why would we not allow them to make that choice?" he asked.

He acknowledged arguments that the state should let the new changes "percolate."

Republican Gov. Bill Haslam has said he's still weighing the voucher proposal.

Speaking to the Nashville Rotary Club last week, Haslam said he believes vouchers will be "one of the most contentious issues" when state lawmakers come back into session in January.

It is "incumbent upon us to at least do our homework and see how would the voucher system affect existing systems," Haslam said.

Any decision he makes is bound to upset a powerful block of GOP lawmakers. Last year, he chose to focus on teacher tenure and charter schools.

The governor said he expects to make a decision by the end of the year.