By Lucas Johnson, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Tiffany Clay says she wants to give her sons the best education possible, and that’s why the Memphis mother favors a proposal to create a school voucher program in Tennessee.
“The program allows parents to have options,” said Clay, whose 11- and 14-year-old sons attend a private school in Shelby County.
Clay said a voucher plan proposed by Republican Gov. Bill Haslam would create opportunities for other parents to send their children to better-performing schools.
Haslam’s proposal is drawing mixed response from lawmakers and educators.
A Republican-sponsored bill to create a voucher program passed the Senate in 2011 but was deferred in the House to the following session. When the delay occurred, Haslam had persuaded lawmakers to wait while a task force studied options on school choice. The governor had previously been undecided about whether he would take the lead on a voucher proposal or let lawmakers control the measure.
“We spent an extraordinary amount of time looking at it,” Haslam said when he decided last month to move forward with a voucher proposal. “We thought once we did that we had the responsibility — having said, ‘Hold off, let’s study it’ — to come with a proposal that we thought would make sense.”
The measure Haslam is proposing seems to have the support of GOP lawmakers, who have supermajorities in both chambers of the Legislature.
“We’re very glad to have the governor’s support of the bill this year, and I think that will go a long way in the Legislature,” said Republican Sen. Brian Kelsey of Germantown, who is carrying the Senate version of the proposal.
Proponents of the measure say it is another option for parents seeking to provide a better education for their children, but those against the proposal say voucher programs are unproven and they don’t like the idea of taking needed funds from public schools and giving them to private institutions.
“I think that vouchers would take funding from the schools … that are already underfunded,” said Amy Frogge, whose 6- and 8-year-olds attend public schools in Nashville. Frogge is serving her first term on the Nashville School Board.
“I would rather see us invest our energy and resources in the schools that we already have, instead of sending students to private schools.”
Under Haslam’s legislation, the plan — which backers are calling the “opportunity scholarship program” — would be limited to 5,000 students in the school year that begins in August and grow to 20,000 by 2016.
It would be open to students in low-income families, or those who qualify for free or reduced-priced lunches.
Claire Smrekar, associate professor of public policy and education at Vanderbilt University, said research on school voucher programs show “inconsistent results.”
“We have found some positive outcomes for kids,” she said. “But there’s also a lot of evidence that suggests that voucher students neither outperform nor underperform their counterparts. … in regular public schools, so it’s just very mixed, very uneven.”
One provision of Haslam’s proposal that opponents don’t like would shield private schools from having to provide services for students’ special needs.
“As a nonpublic school, a participating school is required to offer only those services it already provides to assist students with special needs,” according to the proposal.
Gera Summerford, president of the Tennessee Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, said that’s one of the main reasons she opposes the legislation.
“In addition to the financial drain, school vouchers leave many students behind — including those with greatest need — because vouchers divert tax dollars to private entities that are not required to accept all students nor offer the special services students may need,” she said.
House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh acknowledged that voucher programs are an option, but “not necessarily a good option.”
“I’m afraid what’s going to happen is a child will try that for a while because of the hopes of a better option, then the child will come back into the public school system and find himself or herself behind,” the Ripley Democrat said. “And it’s hard to catch up after that.”