Gov. Haslam touts limited school vouchers

photo Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam
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According to the Education Department's website, Hamilton County schools on the state's "priority" list are: Brainerd High School, Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy, Dalewood Middle School, Orchard Knob Elementary, Orchard Knob Middle School and Woodmore Elementary.

NASHVILLE -- Republican Gov. Bill Haslam used his annual State of the State address Monday night to defend his plan to implement a limited school voucher program next fall that would allow impoverished children in 83 low-performing public schools to use tax dollars to attend private institutions.

"Some have said that this administration and General Assembly aren't committed to public education, but that could not be further from the truth," Haslam told members of the Republican-run House and Senate meeting in a joint convention.

Noting his administration has been "literally putting our money where our mouth is, even when other states haven't done so through tough budget times," Haslam added the state's education funding formula has been fully funded in his three budgets.

Noting various initiatives his administration has implemented including expansions of publicly funded but privately operated charter schools, Haslam said, "This year we're proposing to offer another option for school choice" through vouchers. "If we can help our lowest-income students in our lowest-performing schools, why wouldn't we?

"I've heard the argument that this kind of program will drain resources in the schools that need them the most, but we're focusing on those schools," said Haslam, who pointed out the state is providing $38 million to the 83 worst-performing schools over a three-year period.

The bill, called the "Tennessee Choice & Opportunity Scholarship Act," is sponsored by House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, and Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville, who carry the governor's package of bills.

Enrollment would be limited in its first year to 5,000 students whose family income makes them eligible for free or reduced-price lunch programs. That would grow to 20,000 by the 2016-17 school year.

House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, charged the administration is "putting forward a radical, unfunded mandate in the form of a school voucher proposal designed to rip millions of dollars from public education."

He said it "will almost certainly mean a tax increase for our local governments, a dramatic decline in public school funding and, most importantly, it will leave thousands of students behind in failing schools."

During his address, in which he unveiled a $32.7 billion budget for the 2013-14 fiscal year that starts July 1, Haslam urged lawmakers to keep an open mind about expanding its Medicaid program to more than 100,000 Tennesseans under the Affordable Care Act.

Haslam said he remains undecided about the expansion, which is expected to have a tough time in the GOP-run Legislature.

"Most of us in this room don't like the Affordable Care Act, but the decision to expand Medicaid isn't as basic as saying, 'No Obamacare, no expansion,"' Haslam said, noting that hospitals, many of them in rural areas, will suffer, and some could shut down.

Under the law, the federal government would pay 100 percent of the expansion in its first three years and 90 percent after 2019. A number of Republicans are philosophically opposed and also cite concerns that the federal government will eventually cut back on its commitments given federal deficits.

Two freshman lawmakers from Hamilton County found the voucher proposal appealing.

"I like vouchers; I've liked them a long time," said Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, noting he's supported them since the 1970s. "You know, you got to look out for the kids first, let them choose, let the parents choose, and then the market will take care of itself."

Rep. Mike Carter, R-Ooltewah, said he hasn't seen details, "but in concept I completely support the governor's position. And I'm extremely pleased we're focusing on the under-privileged, under-performing children. Where else would you put your dollars but there?"

Contact staff writer Andy Sher at or 615-255-0550.