Speakers Split on Vouchers

Tennessee’s House and Senate Republican leaders could be at odds next year over legislation requiring school voucher programs in Hamilton County and Tennessee’s three other largest school systems.
Republican Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey says he is fired up about new legislation that retools a bill to let children from lower-income families use taxpayer dollars to attend private and religious schools.
“Something I am big on is starting at least a pilot project for school choice here in Tennessee,” said Ramsey, the Senate speaker, who calls vouchers “educational scholarships.”
“If you have children trapped in failing schools and their parents don’t have the means to allow them to go to an alternative, then we need to start with a small pilot project [in the four largest systems] … and be able to allow those students to have some choice,” Ramsey said.

Republican House Speaker Beth Harwell is less enthusiastic than Ramsey about the revamped bill.
While not ruling it out in 2012, Harwell said, “If we’re going to proceed, we need to be very careful; there are a lot of questions.”
She said lawmakers this year “put a lot of additional work” on public school teachers with a new evaluation process.
Letting students “go into a private system where those teachers don’t have to have those same systems, I think it’s sending a mixed message to our teachers,” Harwell said.
“We have a lot to do in public education yet, and I’d like to stay focused on what we’re doing in our public schools,” Harwell said.
She noted that lawmakers this year passed an “excellent public charter school bill” that she believes is “more of the answers to our public school needs.”
House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, also sounded cautious. Echoing Harwell, McCormick said the state has made major changes in education recently.
“We need to go carefully and not get in a hurry based on political pressures to make more changes,” he said.

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