Tennessee school-voucher task force submits written recommendations to Gov. Haslam

photo Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam
Arkansas-Tennessee Live Blog

NASHVILLE - Gov. Bill Haslam's school-voucher task force today submitted its final written recommendations to the Republican governor on how a program could be implemented in Tennessee.

The report comes a year after Haslam appointed the nine-member group to study how Tennessee might students use state and local tax dollars to attend private and religious schools.

Task Force members finalized their recommendations in a public meeting earlier this month, saying the state should limit any would-be program to poorer students. But the group failed to reach consensus on several key details including how large a program Tennessee should have.

The group didn't evaluate the merits or disadvantages of creating a voucher program. Instead, the group, headed by Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman, looked at Tennessee public and private schools and examed voucher programs in other states to see what would best fit within the broader context of current education reform efforts.

The group's recommendations included discussion about accountability and private school eligibility, student eligibility and scholarship amounts.

Haslam named the task force when fellow state House Republicans were set to reconsider a Senate-passed bill that created "opportunity scholarships," that is a voucher program, that would operate in the state's largest school systems, including Hamilton County Schools.

Haslam thanked task force members.

"I want to thank the members of the Task Force for the time and effort they spent researching and deliberating what an opportunity scholarship program could look like in Tennessee," Haslam said. "I look forward to reviewing the Task Force's recommendations ahead of the upcoming legislative session."

But the idea of a Tennessee voucher program is already drawing criticism from the Washington-based Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

"If legislators are intent on subsidizing private religious schools, they ought to reach into their own wallets, not those of the taxpayers," said Americans United executive director, the Rev. Barry W. Lynn. "Vouchers undermine the separation of church and state, and repeated studies have shown that they are ineffective academically," he said. "This is a really bad idea that ought to be rejected out of hand."

Haslam has previously said he isn't sure whether his administration will introduce voucher legislation, but he said he expects a bill was be filed in the 2013 legislative session.

Speaking to reporters earlier in the week, Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, said he thinks there are school systems where a voucher program is needed.

"I just think it's blatantly unfair that we doom children to failure just because of the zip code they were born in," Ramsey said.

Huffman's office said that while the task force didn't reach "full agreement on each design element," there were "many points of consensus. Among them was consensus that the focus of a voucher program should be to increase options for low-income students.