Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam pushing school vouchers

photo Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, right, and Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam talk about education reform during a forum in Nashville.

NASHVILLE - Gov. Bill Haslam's embrace of a limited school voucher program is drawing praise from a leading legislative proponent but dismay from the state's largest teachers group and a Chattanooga representative.

Haslam, a Republican, told reporters Monday that he plans to push a limited education voucher bill in the Legislature this year.

The poorest children in Tennessee's worst-performing schools would be eligible, the governor said.

"We actually have decided over the last several weeks that we will have a voucher bill," the governor said after a conference on education in which he appeared with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a Republican who pushed vouchers during his tenure.

Haslam, who last year persuaded legislative Republicans not to press the issue to give him time to study its ramifications, added, "We're working out the specifics of that and talking with a lot of different parties. I think it will be means-tested [applied to low-income students], and it will be focused on our lowest performing schools."

He expects to release details in about two weeks.

Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Collierville, who in 2011 sponsored a voucher bill that passed the Senate but stalled in the House, said he is pleased Haslam had come out in favor of vouchers, which allow students to attend religious and other private schools at taxpayer expense.

Calling vouchers "opportunity scholarships," Kelsey said, "I'm hopeful we can cover as many low-income children as possible."

Asked whether he is content with restricting that to the lowest performing schools, Kelsey said he wants "to see the details" of the governor's proposal.

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While Haslam said he has talked to a "lot of different parties," one group he appears to have snubbed is the Tennessee Education Association, the state's largest organization of educators. The TEA vehemently opposes vouchers.

TEA President Gera Summerford said the governor has not talked to her.

" I think ... it's been pretty clear where we stand on the issue," Summerford said. "There are some things we can talk about and come to agreement on. I'm not sure this is one of them."

Summerford said teachers "just have a lot of concerns about diverting funds away from the public schools that serve all children in the community."

"We don't see any need to move in this direction, certainly at this time," she said.

If the governor and the Republican-controlled Legislature do push vouchers, Summerford said, any private school should "absolutely" be held to the same standards that public schools are.

Rep. JoAnne Favors, D-Chattanooga, said parents of students in low-performing schools already have opportunities to send their children to other public schools.

"Anything that will tap into the same funding program that we have for education currently, I am opposed to it," she said.

She said that while Republicans may be able to push vouchers through, given "supermajorities" in both House and Senate, "I wouldn't be able to sleep at night. I would certainly caution them to go back and look at the history and don't base it on the last two or three years that you've been here."

Tennessee has one of the lowest rates of school funding nationwide, Favors said, adding, "that's why we have such a low number of college graduates, because we didn't put the money where we needed to place it."

Favors said she's also concerned that Tennessee never carried through with its promises to completely revamp the state's Basic Education Program funding formula for public K-12 schools.

The state implemented half the funding changes promoted by former Gov. Phil Bredesen, a Democrat. But then the recession struck in 2008, and there has been no further progress. Changes were promoted heavily by then-Hamilton County Mayor Claude Ramsey, who is now deputy to Haslam.

Funding vouchers, in which money would follow students to private schools, will make things even worse, Favors said.

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