By Erik Schelzig, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Gov. Bill Haslam is weighing both an increase in funding for the state’s public pre-kindergarten program and creating a school voucher system in Tennessee, though the Republican says he doesn’t consider the two proposals linked.
The governor told The Associated Press after a recent groundbreaking outside Nashville that while both measures face heavy opposition among various factions of lawmakers, he doesn’t see one as providing political cover for the other.
“Those are two good examples of something where people on both sides can point to studies that show they’re either effective or not,” Haslam said. “Our job is to wade into the middle of that and see if it works for Tennessee.
“But I don’t think they’re coupled at all.”
Republicans in the Legislature have traditionally be more supportive voucher programs, while voicing more skepticism about the pre-K program. Democrats have largely opposed vouchers and called for more public early childhood learning opportunities.
“In both cases it’s one of those where both of them are controversial, but at the end of the day our mission is to figure out what’s effective and what works,” Haslam said.
The governor managed to delay a legislative fight over vouchers this year by calling for a study panel to develop recommendations by this fall. But the Senate has passed voucher legislation in the past, making it likely that the measure will again be a priority next session.
The pre-K program was begun as a pilot project for about 150 classrooms under Republican Gov. Don Sundquist in 1998. Under his Democratic successor, Phil Bredesen, the program was expanded by nearly 800 classrooms statewide to serve more than 18,000 children at an annual cost of about $85 million.
Bredesen’s call for further expanding pre-K were put on hold because of the recession, and Haslam hasn’t made significant changes to the program during the first two legislative sessions.
Throwing his support behind both education measures would echo the governor’s proposals this year to cut both the inheritance tax and the state’s sales tax on groceries.
Doing away with the tax on estates worth more than $1 million has long been championed by Republicans who deride it as a “death tax.” Democrats, meanwhile, argued for a larger reduction in the sales tax on food as a way to direct tax relief to all Tennesseans.
When Haslam proposed both measures during his State of the State address, the inheritance tax proposal gained raucous applause from fellow Republicans, while the food tax proposal drew a more tepid reponse. Republican lawmakers have nevertheless been quick to promote the one-quarter percentage point reduction in the sales tax on groceries since the session ended.
Some Democrats saw the food tax proposal as political cover.
“We gave money to the wealthy people at the expense of the rest of Tennesseans,” House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner of Nashville said in a phone interview. “But nobody wants to talk about that.”
Turner said he would not support any “trade-out” in getting more money for pre-K by agreeing to vouchers. He argued that creating a voucher program would similarly benefit people who are already able to afford sending their children to private schools.
“When we do vouchers, we’re playing to rich, as the governor has done in the first two years of his administration,” Turner said. “And the people of Tennessee seem to want that.
“So they may get it passed, but I’m going to fight them tooth and nail.”