Gov. Bill Haslam, whose administration has been studying vouchers and potential changes to the state’s higher education system for months, said Tuesday he may not propose any significant changes in the two areas next year.
On vouchers, the governor in 2011 asked legislators to hold up action on legislation to establish a “equal opportunity scholarship” program of providing state funding for “at-risk” children to attend to private schools in Tennessee’s four largest counties.
The bill, which had passed the Senate but not the House, was shelved as Haslam appointed a “task force” that w chaired by Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman, which wrapped up its work last month by making some broad recommendations but proposing no specific legislation.
On Tuesday, Haslam told reporters that he may have no legislation at all on vouchers for the 2013 legislative session, which begins Jan. 8. Instead, he said the administration could leave legislators to file bills on the subject and then decide whether to support or oppose the measures.
A final decision on voucher legislation, he said, would come “after the first of the year.” He said there were several complex questions to be answered in drafting legislation, ranging from what children should be covered by vouchers and what sort of accountability the state should impose on private schools receiving money – perhaps for just a single enrolled student.
He also said, regardless of what action is taken on vouchers, he believes “90 percent plus of our students are always going to be in public schools.”
On higher education, Haslam earlier this year announced a new focus on finding ways to improve colleges and universities, which have been raising tuition as state funding declined in recent years. He held a series of workshops around the state to solicit ideas from businesses and the academic community on the topic.
But Tuesday, Haslam said he will propose nothing that would make “fundamental” change in the state’s higher education system and its governance next year, though perhaps offering bills to adjust the lottery scholarship program or revise other “component pieces.”
“We don’t have the exact path we are going to go down,” he said, saying further study will continue in the year ahead on subjects including, “Do you have the governance right?”
Any significant improved funding for higher education, he said, is tied to Medicaid, which is handled through the TennCare program. The governor has said he expects substantial growth in state revenue during the coming year, but also believes TennCare cost increases will “eat” most of that money, perhaps $350 million in extra spending next year.
In kindergarten-through-12th grade, Haslam said, his administration benefited from some programs started under former Gov. Phil Bredesen and their was a path to follow, with his administration adding its own embellishments, such as new restrictions on teacher tenure.
“We’re just getting started on higher ed,” he said. “In higher ed, it’s a little harder to distinguish what that path looks like.”
Legislation enacted in the last legislative session at Haslam’s urging gave the governor authority to hire and fire the executive director of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission and some other state agencies. But Haslam has not used that authority to dismiss anyone, including longtime THEC Executive Director Rich Rhoda.
Haslam said the legislation was tied to policy, not peronalities, and “I don’t have any plans right now to make any changes” in top positions at THEC and the other agencies in question.