By Lucas Johnson, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — As the 108th Tennessee General Assembly draws to a close, state lawmakers are hoping to push through education proposals that include creating a state panel to authorize charter schools for five counties and a measure that would clear the way for cities to begin forming municipal school systems.
The session, which lawmakers are trying to wrap up this month, began with several proposals aimed at continuing education reform in Tennessee. They included Gov. Bill Haslam’s initiative to create a school voucher program and a so-called parent trigger measure that would allow parents to decide the fate of a struggling school.
Both of those proposals have failed.
However, the charter school proposal could be heading to the governor soon for his consideration. The bill is waiting to be scheduled for a vote by the full House, and the Senate Finance Committee is expected to take up a companion bill on Monday.
By Erik Schelzig, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The path may have been rocky at times for the new Republican supermajority in the General Assembly, but leaders are pleased that many of the most contentious issues have been decided as lawmakers enter the final few weeks of the session.
Gov. Bill Haslam’s decision last week to withdraw his limited school voucher proposal highlights the sometimes-contentious nature of his relationship with rank-and-file Republicans in the Legislature.
But the demise of the legislation staves off a last-minute showdown as lawmakers put the final touches on the state’s annual spending plan.
“The governor made it clear all along that if his original voucher bill was going to be modified in any way, he was going to pull it,” said House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville.
The governor’s proposal would have been limited to only children from the worst-performing schools. Harwell said expanding that eligibility would have faced a tough road in the lower chamber even if the Haslam hadn’t withdrawn the bill.
“It would have had a very difficult time passing — if at all,” she said.
Gov. Bill Haslam is prepared to withdraw his limited school voucher proposal from the Legislature if Senate Republicans carry out current plans to expand it, its sponsor says.
From Andy Sher’s report: “It won’t be expanded, because I’ll withdraw it,” said Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville.
Norris said this isn’t a case of brinkmanship on Haslam’s part. He said he has sponsored “hundreds of bills” for the governor “and he always works with the General Assembly.”
But Norris said that Haslam “filed exactly what he thought was appropriate” in light of “all the other education reforms” he has implemented since taking office in 2011.
Last week, Haslam reminded reporters his plan came out of a yearlong task force headed by his education commissioner, Kevin Huffman.
“It’s not like we’re people who say it’s just our way or the highway, the Legislature shouldn’t have input,” Haslam said. He noted he has agreed to lawmakers’ proposed changes in areas such as limiting lawsuit damage awards.
“On this issue we really have worked hard to say this is where we really think the right place is,” Haslam said. “We think if somebody thinks something different, they should run their own bill.”
…Republican Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey of Blountville, favors a broader bill.
But noting Haslam’s concerns, he told reporters last week, “I’m letting the committee system play out on that. Whatever happens, happens.”
He said Haslam’s bill is included in the proposed budget.
“So if you’re going to put an amendment on, it probably needs to be on the governor’s bill,” he said.
He acknowledged the possibility that Haslam could yank his bill.
“I could vote for either bill when it comes to the floor,” Ramsey said. “Obviously my preference is a more expansive one. But it doesn’t matter to me one way or the other. I’d like to pass something.”
Senate Education Committee Chair Dolores Gresham has backed down from a potential clash with Gov. Bill Haslam over the number of school vouchers that could be offered to Tennessee students.
From TNReport: During a meeting of Gresham’s committee Wednesday, the Somerville Republican pulled her expansive voucher legislation, Senate Bill 1358, from the full committee’s discussion agenda and sent it to a general subcommittee typically reserved for bills destined for no further consideration.
Gresham, however, also put off discussion on the governor’s scaled-back voucher legislation for another week.
…Gresham’s bill called for eligibility for middle-class families earning nearly $75,000 a year and would have removed any cap on the number of vouchers by 2016. The bill also opened up eligibility regardless of school performance.
Gresham was short on specifics about her reasons for dropping the competing bill. But she also told reporters she’s not entirely rule out bringing it back later. “I think it’s too early to tell,” Gresham said. “We’ll see what the Legislature does.”
Yet even with Gresham bowing out for the time being, there is still the possibility of a dustup amongst Republicans over the issue. Sen Brian Kelsey, a member of the Education Committee and long-time voucher advocate, spoke with reporters after the meeting. Kelsey said he hopes to amend the governor’s bill to bring it closer to what Gresham was proposing.
By Lucas Johnson, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Gov. Bill Haslam’s proposal to create a school voucher program in Tennessee continued its progression in the House on Tuesday as the state’s largest teachers’ union mounted an ad campaign seeking to defeat the measure.
The legislation carried by Republican Rep. Bill Dunn of Knoxville was approved 8-4 in the House Government Operations Committee and sent to the House Finance Committee.
The legislation, called the “Tennessee Choice and Opportunity Scholarship Act,” would limit the program to 5,000 students in failing schools in the academic year that begins in August and grow to 20,000 by 2016.
A competing Republican-sponsored measure seeks to broaden the number of students by not limiting participation to low-performing schools, and several special interest groups have spent millions of dollars on ads in support of such a proposal.
However, the Tennessee Education Association has shot back with an ad of its own denouncing voucher initiatives altogether.
The cost of the TEA ad — roughly $40,000 — pales in comparison to the amount of money being spent by special interest groups. But TEA chief lobbyist Jim Wrye said the group is hoping to draw more money to develop more ads.
By Lucas Johnson, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The Republican sponsor of a measure competing with Gov. Bill Haslam’s to create a school voucher program in Tennessee says she’s convinced the initiative should be broader than what the governor is proposing.
His measure would limit the program to 5,000 students in failing schools in the academic year that begins in August, and grow to 20,000 by 2016.
The proposal Sen. Dolores Gresham plans to present in the Senate Education Committee as early as next week would increase the income limit for eligibility to about $75,000 for a family of four, which is quite an increase from the $42,643 envisioned by Haslam’s proposal. The bill also has no limitation on growth.
When reporters asked Gresham about her proposal Wednesday evening, she said she had talked to the Republican governor about the competing proposals, but didn’t elaborate on what was discussed.
“The governor and I are on the same page,” said the Somerville Republican and retired Marine lieutenant colonel. “We both believe that we should do this. The only difference is to what degree. It’s … my conviction that it should be broader.”
By Eric Schelzig, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — A national group advocating for a large-scale school voucher program in Tennessee is launching a massive media campaign to persuade lawmakers to expand the program proposed by Gov. Bill Haslam.
An official familiar with the plans told The Associated Press on Friday that the state chapter of the American Federation for Children is spending $800,000 on broadcast television, cable and radio advertising — a vast amount for political advertising or issue advocacy in the state.
The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because the group has not made the amount public.
Haslam told reporters this week that he plans to stick with the narrower plan he proposed in his State of the State address, which he predicted would be “hotly debated” anyway.
Haslam’s proposal would limit the program to 5,000 students in failing schools in the academic year that begins in August, and grow to 20,000 by 2016.
An article by Cari Wade Gervin takes a thorough look at the lay of the voucher landscape, ranging from a reception for legislators in Nashville to a Chamber of Commerce meeting in Knoxville where Rep. Bill Dunn says he’s eyeing an amendment to go further than Gov. Bill Haslam has proposed. There are also a lot of details on how the program would work.
Excerpt: Servers passed around trays of hors d’oeuvres as several members of the House and Senate Education Committees sipped white wine and mingled with lobbyists and concerned parents.
The event was billed as the Nashville kickoff for “National School Choice Week.” A similar event in Arizona a couple of days before had included a performance by the Jonas Brothers; Nashville was not so blessed, but the evening’s panel did include former WNBA superstar Lisa Leslie and Overstock.com CEO Patrick Byrne.
NSCW bills itself as a nonpartisan awareness group that does not advocate for any legislation or candidates, but it’s clearly well funded. Every chair in the ballroom was draped with a bright yellow fleece scarf embroidered with the group’s logo–graduation caps flying through the air above the words “National School Choice Week”–and an additional table in the lobby was stacked with more scarves, in case you wanted to take some home to your family.
Before the panel began its discussion, it aired a short cartoon about school choice co-produced by the Beacon Center of Tennessee, a libertarian think tank, and the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, the leading national advocate for school choice. (The two groups have launched a pro-voucher website, ChooseMeTennessee.com, where you can watch the video yourself.)
“It’s just like picking a college. Or a grocery store. Or a shopping mall, car, church, job–you name it,” the video says.
That’s one of the arguments proponents of vouchers like to use a lot–that schools should be just another consumer choice. And maybe that consumer mentality has something to do with Overstock.com’s Byrne’s outspoken advocacy for vouchers, despite having never been married and having no children himself. (He’s the chairman of the board for the Friedman Foundation.) Byrne compared public schools to the Soviet agricultural system and said a market-driven system would breed more educational success.
…But proponents of a universal system, like much of the audience at the NCSW event, think there’s no reason to not make Tennessee a testing ground. At a legislative briefing at the Knoxville Chamber of Commerce last week, Dunn, who says he has been a fan of school choice for over 20 years, said he is contemplating an amendment to Haslam’s bill that would open up vouchers to more students.
“I have told [the school choice lobbyists], bring me 55 votes, and I’ll consider expanding the bill,” Dunn says.
Newly elected Rep. Roger Kane, another House Education Committee member, also voiced his support for a wider program.
“It gives a parent a sense of choice. It brings it back to the local level. What’s more local than family?” Kane says. “I think its time has finally come.”
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.
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.