Tag Archives: vouchers

Sunday column: Voucher politics finally prevailing?

If Tennessee gets into the school voucher business — perhaps probable now with approval last week by a crucial House subcommittee — more credit should go to hardball politics than to the policy arguments reasonably presented by advocates such as Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, sponsor of the bill.

There is both bipartisan support and bipartisan opposition, though it’s fair to say that most Republicans are supporters and most Democrats are opponents.

Still, unease about the proposition within the Republican supermajority — the watered-down version now poised for passage that will apply only to about 2,500 students statewide initially and 10,000 in 2019, according to the legislative staff fiscal note — has prevented passage for years, even with a few Democrats in support.

In the early stages of the voucher war, the big dispute was between moderate Republicans such as Gov. Bill Haslam who wanted a limited startup and zealous advocates who wanted a far broader leap into the waters. Critics see a voucher program as an attack on public education for private profit — or maybe the promotion of religion at taxpayer expense, since faith-based schools will be eligible for voucher money. The fiscal note says about $70 million will be shifted from public schools to private/religious schools with enactment of the bill.
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Voucher bill clears House sub

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — A proposal to provide state vouchers of about $7,000 for parents to send their children to private schools in Tennessee has cleared a House panel that rejected the measure in recent years.

The bill sponsored by Republican Rep. Bill Dunn of Knoxville cleared the House Finance Subcommittee on a voice vote Wednesday. It would apply to students who attend public schools that rank in the bottom 5 percent in the state.

The measure now heads for the full Finance Committee before moving to a floor vote. The companion bill passed the Senate last year.

The program would be capped at 5,000 students in the first year and would then grow by 5,000 each year until reaching 20,000.

Dunn said the state costs of the proposal will be covered in Republican Gov. Bill Haslam’s budget this year. Haslam has in the past supported a limited voucher program in Tennessee, but previous efforts have fallen apart amid advocates’ attempts to create a more expansive program.

House Democratic leader Craig Fitzhugh of Ripley warned of what he called the “devastating effect” of shifting funding out of public schools to pay for the voucher program.

The Legislature estimates it would cost about $185,000 for the state to put the voucher program in effect. But the program would also shift nearly $17 million away from public schools in the first year, and grow to about $70 million in the fourth year.

Note: News releases in praise and in opposition to the voucher vote are below.
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Legislator’s surgery brings voucher sneak play?

Republican leaders in the House plan on capitalizing on Rep. Curry Todd’s surgery and a reshuffling of members to push a long-debated school voucher bill through a key finance committee Wednesday morning, reports Angela Zelinski.

“You have the committee just where you need them. One in the hospital, threw two off,” House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh said to fellow members Tuesday afternoon when House Finance Committee Chairman Charles Sargent told subcommittee members at a committee pre-meeting that the voucher bill would come up for a vote.

Rep. Curry Todd, who was last on record leaning away from vouchers, is out this week after a planned surgery Tuesday. He is expected to be out all this week and return on Monday.

For years, advocates for school vouchers have failed to move the bill out of the House, watching it get snarled in committee. But subcommittee of House Finance, Ways and Means — where the bill now sits — has changed a lot since last year’s attempt to pass it. Mike Harrison, Republican chairman of the committee and no fan of vouchers, resigned late last year to become executive director of the Tennessee County Mayor’s Association. Ryan Haynes, a state representative, left to become chair of the Tennessee Republican Party, although his latest public statements indicate he would have voted in favor of the bill.

Meanwhile, Rep. Joe Armstrong was moved from the finance subcommittee to the health subcommittee. Armstrong, a Democrat and opponent of vouchers, said House Republican leadership offered to move him to the health committee, an assignment he says he’s wanted for some time. “If you’re not the big dog” on the Finance, Ways and Means subcommittee, members don’t have much clout, he told Post Politics.

House Speaker Pro Tempore Curtis Johnson, a high-ranking member of Republican leadership now replaces Harrison. It is unclear how he would vote.

If the public statements made by members of the committee last year hold up, with Todd’s absence the committee could be looking at a 5-5 split, which would need House Speaker Beth Harwell to cast the tie-breaking vote. Harwell has broken ties in the past to advance school voucher legislation, although common debates have also revolved around how expansive a school voucher program would be.

TN voucher advocates optimistic for 2016 session

By Lucas Johnson, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Supporters of school choice say they plan to push for proposals that they argue allow parents to play a stronger role in how their children are educated in the legislative session that begins in January.

Over the past few years, measures that would create a school voucher program in Tennessee and allow parents to determine the fate of a failing public school have struggled to pass, mainly because of opposition from Democrats and advocates who argue more attention should be given to public schools. But both measures, particularly vouchers, are expected to be revived this session, and proponents are optimistic they’ll fare better in 2016.

“All Tennessee students deserve a chance at a quality academic experience that best prepares them for a college or post-secondary education and a rewarding career,” said Ted Boyatt, spokesman for StudentsFirst Tennessee, a leading advocate for the creation of a voucher program.
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Beacon Center wish list: Approve vouchers, repeal CONs and the Hall tax, etc.

News release from Beacon Center of Tennessee
Today, the Beacon Center of Tennessee released its 2016 policy agenda and corresponding packages that Beacon will be providing to all state legislators when they return in January.

The Beacon Center is calling for lawmakers to adopt reforms in the areas of school choice, healthcare, and taxation. Below is a summary of each policy priority, along with quotes from Beacon CEO Justin Owen on each category. You can read the full legislative packages by clicking on the hyperlinked title.
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No vouchers for special needs kids until 2017

A new state program allowing parents of Tennessee children with certain disabilities to get public funding for private education likely won’t be ready for enrollment until January 2017, reports Richard Locker.

The Legislature approved the Individualized Education Act in the closing days of this year’s session in April, making it the state’s first variation of a school-voucher program. Eligibility is limited to special-education students with individualized education plans and diagnosed with autism, deafness or blindness, hearing impairments, intellectual disability, orthopedic impairments, traumatic brain injury or visual impairments.

The state estimates about 22,000 students in kindergarten through 12th grade across Tennessee are eligible, but expects no more than 5 percent will enroll. The bill as originally drafted by state Sen. Dolores Gresham, R-Somerville, and state Rep. Debra Moody, R-Covington, its sponsors, made eligible any special-needs child with an individualized education plan, or IEP — an estimated 120,000 statewide — but the bill was amended to limit eligibility to those with the disabilities listed above.

The program essentially gives parents of special-needs children the choice of enrolling them in local public schools or in private schools, home school and an array of private services and therapies. The state will deposit the state and local per-student funding that would have paid for their public schooling into state-approved individualized education accounts, or IEAs, and parents will use the money to pay for whatever mixture of qualified private educational services they choose.

“The program provides options for parents and students to choose the education opportunities that best meet their own unique needs through access to public education funds,” said Rebecca Wright, the program’s director at the state Department of Education.

That’s an average of $6,600 per year, the amount generated per student under Tennessee’s Basic Education Program formula, according to testimony presented to the state Senate Education Committee last week. The amount does not include the average $2,433 per year that school systems spend on special education students above the BEP formula. The law does not require supplemental local spending to be transferred to parents who opt out of their public schools, and no federal funds are involved because federal money is drawn down only if the student is enrolled in a public school.

Although the law provides for “the first award of IEAs during the 2016-17 school year,” the program won’t be ready to accept applications until August 2016 and won’t enroll students or begin distributing funds until Jan. 1, 2017, Wright told the Education Committee last week.

That timetable surprised Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, a school-voucher advocate.

“I’m very concerned about this. Why does the rule-making process take so long, such that you would start in the middle of the school year instead of the beginning?” he asked Wright in Tuesday’s hearing. “That is a semester too late in my opinion. You’re not going to have a whole lot of participation, I wouldn’t think, for the second semester of a school year.”

But the law specifies the program cannot not go into effect before Aug. 1, 2016, and Wright said the state’s rule-making process is lengthy.

Kelsey prepares for another try at bringing vouchers to TN

By Lucas Johnson, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The co-sponsor of a Senate proposal to create a school voucher program in Tennessee said Monday that lawmakers will try again to pass the measure in the next legislative session — despite failures in the last three.

The proposal, or “opportunity scholarship,” would let parents move a child from a failing public school in Tennessee to a private school with funding from the state.

Republican Sen. Brian Kelsey of Germantown told reporters on Monday following a Senate Education Committee hearing on vouchers that he’s optimistic the Legislature starting in January could be the one to finally pass a school voucher proposal.

He said one reason is that the chairman of the House Education Subcommittee where the companion bill got stuck in the last session is also a co-sponsor of the legislation he’s supporting.

“I’ve had positive conversations with members of the House,” Kelsey said. “I think the House simply needs a chance to vote on this.”
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House District 14 post-election spin: Insure TN a loser, school choice a winner

News release from Americans for Prosperity-Tennessee
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The unofficial results are in and Jason Zachary has been elected to the open seat for Tennessee House District 14. The candidates were similar on most issues, except whether or not Tennessee should expand Medicaid under Obamacare.

Governor Haslam proposed the Insure Tennessee plan during the special legislative session at the beginning of the year. Insure Tennessee was promptly defeated in the Senate Health Committee and again each time the supporters sought to resuscitate it.

The defining issue of Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion proved to be all the Zachary camp needed to pull off a big victory. It didn’t hurt that Zachary was also firmly opposed to raising the gas tax, while his opponent was not nearly as resolute on the issue.

“The voters have spoken: HD14 served as a referendum on big government,” said Andrew Ogles, state director of Americans for Prosperity Tennessee. “If Gov. Haslam is serious about improving the lives of hard working Tennesseans, then he needs to stop forcing liberal policies like Insure TN and increases to the Gas Tax and focus on job creation and growing the Tennessee economy.”

News release from Tennessee Federation for Children
Nashville, Tenn. (August 12, 2015) – The Tennessee Federation for Children PAC (TFC PAC) congratulates Jason Zachary on defeating Karen Carson in the special election primary for state House District 14, and commends both candidates for running a positive, issue-focused campaign.

Jason Zachary’s pledge to fight for children against the special interests of the education bureaucracy follows in the footsteps of the previous officeholder, Ryan Haynes, who stepped down this year to serve as chairman of the Tennessee state Republican Party.

“We saw in 2014 and 2012 that voters want legislators who support choice in education,” said Tony Niknejad, director for the Tennessee Federation for Children PAC. “Defeating a challenger with an 11-year political career is difficult, but Zachary’s determination to put parents in charge of their children’s education clearly resonated with the Republican voters of West Knox and Farragut.”

GOP voters have lined up behind school choice. Earlier this year, a poll performed by OnMessage, Inc. found that 69% of GOP Primary voters support an opportunity scholarship program that gave parents the right to use tax-dollars to send their child to a school that best serves his or her needs. The polling memo from OnMessage, Inc. can be found here: http://bit.ly/17rPyJk.

More recently, school choice has made the news as an issue that unites nearly every Republican candidate for President.

“With 13 of the Presidential candidates in the news all emphasizing and re-emphasizing their strong support for school choice, it’s really no surprise that Jason Zachary won. There’s simply not many Republican voters left when you espouse a position that’s contrary to Ted Cruz, Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Bobby Jindal, Scott Walker and others,” added Niknejad. “Both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have taken positions opposing school choice. We expect 2016 will be a very exciting election year for Tennessee.”

Statement from House Speaker Beth Harwell:
“I appreciate both candidates’ willingness to step forward and serve the people of the 14th district. With no opponent in the general election, I want to welcome Jason Zachary to the Tennessee General Assembly and the House Republican Caucus, and I look forward to working with him.”

Bill providing subsidies to parents of disabled children is signed

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Gov. Bill Haslam has signed a bill that overhauls how severely disabled children are educated in Tennessee. The Individualized Education Act will turn over roughly $6,600 in education funds to parents to help their children.

Supporters have hailed it as empowering parents whose children don’t do well in special education programs at public school. Critics say it hands money over to parents with few safeguards.

Traditional vouchers give families whose children attend poor-performing public schools a way to pay for private schools. This law gives parents much more freedom to determine how to spend the money.

Under the law, parents will be able to spend the $6,600 on private school tuition or approved therapies.

Haslam signed the bill on Monday.

Republican Sen. Dolores Gresham of Somerville was the primary sponsor in the Senate.

Note: Press releases below.
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AP story on bill providing subsidies to parents of children with some disabilities

By Sheila Burke, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — A bill passed by Tennessee lawmakers could give parents of severely disabled children more than $6,000 a year to spend on education and therapies that they choose, though critics say the measure hands the money to parents with few safeguards.

Traditional vouchers give families whose children attend poor-performing public schools a way to pay for private schools. A measure in that vein failed this year, but lawmakers did approve the program for disabled children, giving parents much more freedom to determine how to spend the money. It is not clear if Gov. Bill Haslam will sign the bill into law. (Note: It’s HB138, sponsored by Rep. Debra Moody, R-Covington, and Sen. Dolores Gresham, R-Somerville.)

The money, a combination of state and local funds, could be used for private school tuition, approved therapies and tutoring. Participating parents would waive their federal right to an Individualized Education Program, which mandates that public schools provide disability-related services designed to meet a student’s unique learning needs. Some worry that waiving that right means less money for both the child that leaves and the local school district because of the loss of federal dollars.

Public school officials and parents have plenty of concerns. Some worry that children will leave for private schools that are ill-equipped, only to come back and need even more help. They also say that the program siphons money away from public schools, effectively taking dollars away from disabled children who remain in public schools.

Some also were concerned about fly-by-night operations bilking the system. They aren’t sure $6,600 a year is enough to ensure standards will remain in place to make sure children get what they need.

But supporters say safeguards are in place. For instance, parents would have to choose from state-approved vendors. And some parents say it gives them options for children who simply can’t attend a traditional school.
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