Tennessee's school voucher panel unsure of key issues

Tennessee's school voucher panel unsure of key issues

November 14th, 2012 by Andy Sher in News

Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman

Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

NASHVILLE -- Gov. Bill Haslam's school-voucher task force recommended Tuesday to limit any would-be program to poorer students, but the group failed to reach consensus on several major details including how large a program Tennessee should have.

The Republican governor's nine-member task force held its final meeting. Over the course of two hours, members again sought to resolve long-standing issues that observers say are crucial to establishing any program that would divert tax dollars from public schools to private and religious schools.

Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman, who was chairman of the exercise, said he expects to issue its final report to Haslam in the next two weeks.

He later told reporters the report will provide the governor with options should he decide to push a voucher program, which proponents have rebranded as "opportunity scholarships."

"We tried hard to identify [that] here are the areas of consensus and here are areas where people have a broad range of opinions," Huffman said of the group's work.

"There's consensus there should be a screen for private schools on the front side," Huffman 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."

But members split on how much public money should accompany students. They waded unsuccessfully over how to account for transportation and one fretted about the possibility of local governments having to hike taxes to make it work.

Other areas of contention are how broad any program should initially be and whether it should be restricted to low-income students who come from failing schools.

Rep. Harry Brooks, R-Nashville, a task force member, complained that no one was getting to an underlying issue.

"Is our priority choice [for families] or is it academic achievement," said Brooks, who sided with the latter noting it represents everything Tennessee has been focused on for over a decade.

Mary McDonald, former superintendent for the Memphis Catholic Dioceses, said she didn't want to limit the program to just students in failing schools. Parents need a choice, she said.

"I think academic outcome is absolutely the bottom line, but in that, what are the choices for my child, what are the choices for education?" she said. "There are no choices right now if you are in a certain area of the city or certain ZIP code."

Task force members revisited the costs of vouchers with some arguing for a set amount statewide and others arguing the value be based on each district or private tuition.

"It's going to be a nightmare to administer if some kids get $8,000 and some get $12,000 and some get $4,000," warned State Board of Education Executive Director Gary Nixon. "There is no equity in that. It's based on your ZIP code."

Private and religious schools would have to accept the voucher as full payment and not charge students money on top of that.

A rough draft of the report says that some 60 percent of private and religious schools surveyed indicated they were reluctant to participate in a voucher program because they didn't want state government meddling in their business on testing and other matters in exchange for getting tax dollars.

Tennessee Education Association lobbyist Jerry Winters, a voucher critic, said the unresolved issues will trigger any number of fights in the General Assembly come January.

"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," Winters said.

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.

Brooks said he doesn't like the idea of restricting vouchers in a pilot project affecting just a few counties.

Contact staff writer Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550.