NASHVILLE - A task force appointed by Republican Gov. Bill Haslam has skipped over the question of whether to create a school voucher program. Instead, the panel's most spirited debate Wednesday was over how soon vouchers could be offered in Tennessee.
Former state Sen. Jamie Woodson of Knoxville, now the head of the State Collaborative on Reforming Education, said that even if lawmakers approve a voucher program in the spring, properly implementing the program would take until the 2014 school year.
Republican state Sen. Brian Kelsey, of Germantown, Tenn., said he was surprised at that timeline, arguing that if the legislation is passed by March, the first vouchers should be issued by fall 2013.
"It blows my mind that we would even consider not implementing it immediately," he said. "I thought the whole point was to get it started and see how it does and move forward from there."
The panel, which is scheduled to make its full recommendations to the governor in November, also discussed whether private schools participating in the program should be allowed to charge parents any more than the vouchers are worth.
Some members said most lower-income families would be priced out of more expensive schools if controls weren't put into place, but Kelsey argued that more expensive schools were less likely to participate if they couldn't make up some of the difference between the vouchers and their tuition.
"You're basically limiting this program to schools that are directly focused on low-income children," Kelsey said.
Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman noted that the experience in Louisiana has been that most private schools have agreed to participate in the voucher system despite similar tuition controls.
Other questions included whether the vouchers should begin as a pilot program or as a wide-scale launch. And if the more limited approach is chosen, would it apply to a few counties, to failing schools or to low-income families?
Jerry Winters, the chief lobbyist for the Tennessee Education Association, the state's largest teachers' union, said he was upset by the proceedings.
"It's very disturbing to see the leaders of the state education system talking about ways to take more money away from public schools and send it to private schools," he told reporters after the event.
"To subsidize wealthy people for private school tuition is definitely moving in the wrong direction," he said.
Achievement School District Superintendent Chris Barbic argued during the meeting that the vouchers give parents more options.
"Parents get to figure out where they buy bread and toothpaste, and we're going to limit their options on where they send their kids to school?" he said. "I have a hard time with that."