Voucher lobbies, pro and con, produce noise

By Lucas Johnson, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The debate over a school voucher program in Tennessee is heating up with groups for and against speaking out this week at the state Capitol complex.

Tennesseans Reclaiming Educational Excellence, a grassroots organization opposed to vouchers, held a press conference on Monday at the Legislative Plaza. And the Beacon Center of Tennessee, a free market think tank that is advocating for a broader voucher program, has an event scheduled for Tuesday.

The events are being held as Republican state lawmakers and Republican Gov. Bill Haslam try to reach a compromise on voucher legislation.

Last week, Republican lawmakers filed a school voucher bill they hope will be acceptable to Haslam, who has repeatedly said he favors a more limited version of the program that gives parents the option to move a child from a failing public school to a private school, with the state providing funds for tuition.

Haslam’s proposal is limited to students from low-income families attending the bottom 5 percent of failing schools. He had that measure withdrawn last year when Senate Republicans sought to expand to a larger number of children.

The measure now being proposed by Republicans would affect students attending the bottom 10 percent of failing schools.

Under that proposal, the program would also be opened to anyone interested if the entire number isn’t filled by students from low-income families attending failing schools.

Lyn Hoyt, president of Tennesseans Reclaiming Educational Excellence, said more resources should go toward public schools rather than vouchers, or so-called “opportunity scholarships”.

“If you’re providing the services that you need in your local school district, you do not need vouchers,” she said.

The Beacon Center was among groups that spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on an advertising campaign to promote an expanded voucher proposal, and was pretty much the impetus for Haslam pulling his version.

Beacon Center president Justin Owen said the group’s main objective is to give parents more educational options for their children.

“We are witnessing a groundswell of support for school choice that’s unprecedented across the state,” he said. “From Memphis to Nashville, from Knoxville to Chattanooga, we are hearing a resounding plea from parents for our legislators to open the doors to higher quality educational options for their children.”