By limiting the scope of his plan for launching a school voucher system in Tennessee, Gov. Bill Haslam finds himself facing legislative critics who think he hasn’t gone far enough and others who think he has gone too far.
Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, for example, is in the camp of those who think the governor’s plan is too restrictive. He predicts that the Senate will amend the Haslam bill, filed as SB196, to make it “more universal.”
At the other end is House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, who said a state near the bottom nationally in public school funding should not be diverting any money at all to private schools. The Tennessee Education Association takes a similar stance.
As introduced, Haslam’s bill would limit vouchers to the students enrolled in schools ranked in the lowest-performing institutions in the state, called “priority schools” by the state Department of Education. There are 83 on the “priority school list” — 69 in Shelby County, six each in Davidson and Hamilton counties, one in Knox County and one in Hardeman County.
The bill further requires that the student be “at risk,” meaning he or she is from a family with income low enough to qualify for free or reduced-price school lunch. On top of that, no more than 5,000 vouchers could be issued statewide in the first year of operation, expanding to a maximum of 20,000 in 2016.
The amount of a voucher provided toward tuition at a private school under the Haslam program would be based on combined state-local funding for the public school system where the student has been enrolled as determined by the Basic Education Program (BEP) formula.
In Knox County, that figure is $5,890, according to a chart provided by the governor’s office. The voucher value in Memphis would be $6,489; in Nashville, $6,700; in Chattanooga, $6,053.
Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, will serve as lead sponsor of Haslam’s “Tennessee Choice and Opportunity Scholarship Act,” as the bill is officially titled.
“Basically, what we’re doing is having a Hope Scholarship for children,” said Dunn, referring to the lottery-funded scholarships for college and university students.
Dunn in past years has sponsored Haslam bills changing teacher tenure standards and overhauling the state’s civil service system for state employees. Both went through much debate, long hearings and amendments before final passage. Dunn said he expects something along the same lines with the voucher bill.
“We’ll just see where it ends up,” he said.
Dunn noted that the first time charter schools were proposed in Tennessee, there were strong and strident objections. After a few years, charter schools became more acceptable and the law was changed to remove a ceiling on how many there can be in Tennessee — with other changes in the works this year.
Fitzhugh said that launching a voucher program, even a limited version, set “a terribly bad precedent.” Charter schools are diverting money from public education now, he said, along with the “virtual schools fiasco” — a reference to K12 Inc.’s operation of the Tennessee Virtual Academy in Union County, which takes in students from around the state and has faced criticism for poor student performance.
“To start diverting more money from public education, when we’re already underfunded — 46th in the nation, I believe — is just not a good idea,” Fitzhugh said. “If we were 15th or 16th (in state support of education), that would be a different thing.
“We are just not in a financial situation to run one system and supplement another,” Fitzhugh said. “I think we’re getting close to a constitutional question about having adequate funding of public schools.”
Ramsey said he sees Senate Republicans as more strongly for the whole idea of vouchers than the House representatives are. The Senate, he said, is likely to delete the restriction on vouchers to those in only the lowest-performing schools, as well as increase the eligible family income levels and raise limits on the overall number available — or perhaps delete them entirely.
“I think the market will establish where it (a voucher system) is needed and where it’s not needed,” Ramsey said, noting that there are few private schools in Northeast Tennessee, so there will likely be little demand for vouchers in the region.
The Senate passed a bill two years ago that would have set up voucher programs in Davidson, Hamilton, Knox and Shelby counties as a pilot project. But the bill died in the House after Haslam asked legislators to defer action while a task force named by him studied the idea.
The task force did not recommend specific legislation, leaving that to Haslam. The pending bill is the result.
Ramsey said he believes the bill was put into its limited format to make it more palatable in the House, where even some Republicans have voiced misgivings about vouchers.
Generally, the Legislature’s majority Republicans are more supportive of vouchers than the minority Democrats are, but Dunn said he is hoping for bipartisan support.
And it appears that is a possibility. Rep. Joe Armstrong, D-Knoxville, said he has viewed the entire voucher concept with great skepticism — but after reviewing Haslam’s limited approach, is “almost” persuaded that the proposal warrants approval and is willing to listen to the discussion.