Rep. Dunn says he'll support expanded voucher bill, if advocates deliver votes

Thursday, February 21, 2013 at 10:05pm

There’s a move afoot on Capitol Hill to expand the governor’s limited voucher program beyond the state’s poorest students attending the worst schools.

State Rep. Bill Dunn, who is sponsoring the legislation on behalf of Gov. Bill Haslam, is a fan of more broad-range voucher programs. While he originally said he would resist temptation to push a more expansive program, Dunn said he’s willing to consider it if school choice advocates can guarantee at least 50 votes to back the idea.

“I said for those who want to expand it, if you’ll bring a list of 50, 55 votes who will vote for it, then it will allow me to go to the governor, and say, ‘Hey, the will of the body is to expand it. Let’s have a discussion on this if we do it and how far we go,’ ” said Dunn, R-Knoxville.

Haslam’s press secretary said the governor is standing by his original proposal.

“The governor has spent a lot of time studying the issue, and a lot of thought and input has gone into his proposal,” wrote spokesman Dave Smith in an email. “His bill gives low-income students in Tennessee’s lowest performing schools another alternative for school choice, and he believes his approach best fits into our state’s overall education reform strategy.”

The issue is one of the hot topics in the legislature this year after the governor staved off legislation in 2012 so a study committee could research best practices for a program.

Vouchers, also known by proponents as “opportunity scholarships,” are tuition waivers for public school students to attend private schools. Under the governor’s proposal, only students qualifying for free or reduced lunch who attend schools ranked in the bottom 5 percent in the state are eligible. As is, the program would largely include students attending dozens of Memphis schools, plus five Nashville schools, a sprinkling of schools in Hamilton County and one in Knoxville.

Fans of school choice and vouchers want a more wide-ranging program, including Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey who said he wants a larger, statewide pool of students in the program to better determine if it works.

The legislative priority, Ramsey said, is to devise a bill that can get just enough to pass each chamber, which means 17 votes in the Senate and 50 in the House. He said he wouldn’t be surprised if the final details aren’t settled on until a conference committee and he is not concerned about striking balance on a bill his whole GOP caucus can support.

“I don’t see this as a savior, again, for education. But it is one of about a dozen things that need to be done to improve education in Tennessee,” he said.

The bill is up for debate Tuesday in the House Education Subcommittee, where Dunn expects it will have “a favorable hearing.” He said the key now, is to pass the original parameters of the governor’s bill until voucher advocates can deliver.

“It really comes down to getting the votes. If they can only get 30 people for the expansion, and you lose votes, then that’s not good.”

13 Comments on this post:

By: Pegleg on 2/22/13 at 8:15

If you have vouchers they should be for every child in the school system. Period.

By: on 2/22/13 at 8:15

Rep. Dunn's district is in Knoxville. The bill would damage only Nashville and Memphis, so maybe he should stay out of it. Every dollar that goes to the cream of the crop charter schools is a dollar that is taken away from the public school system. Education will go from bad to worse. Look at what happened where there are lots of charter schools, they did well at first and then not so much in the long run.

By: ancienthighway on 2/22/13 at 9:29

And there we have it. The story suddenly changing from limited to everybody. The death of public schools, but that's okay because the rich get their public welfare.

By: ChrisMoth on 2/22/13 at 9:45

This is the first I've heard of a "tennessee overall reform strategy" I just googled that string of four words - and the only sites that I got to were for vouchers.

Then there is the phrase "to improve education." OK - everyone is for that. Improve how? And by what metric will we know education has been improved in a few years?

As taxpayer, I'd like maximum academic achievement, and character development, in Tennessee's children, for minimal expense. If the voucher programs accomplish this, then of course we should implement them. The $ amounts (which are conspicuously absent from the proposal) probably I've heard about so far just let a very few parents pull their kids, and supporting energy, out of neighborhood schools -and only enough to fund Catholic or Islamic education, subsidized - with my thanks - by the sponsoring religious organizations.

If its a small number of kids, as I fear - and the impact is tiny - let's get back to developing a statewide strategy that Google knows about, - and focus, at STATE LEVEL, on doing BIG THINGS (like our adoption of Common Core Standards a few years back, and requiring all high school students to take the ACT) to move education for all of Tennessee.

Chris Moth, 2020 Overhill Dr

By: pswindle on 2/22/13 at 10:14

WHY! I can't come up with a reason for vouchers.

By: mg357 on 2/22/13 at 12:14

mg357..In one of Ron Ramsey's speeches on this topic, he mentioned $5400 for a voucher. First off, there isn't a private school in existence that is going to open their doors for such a paltry amount. No.2..private require testing to see if the kid can keep up in the class they are applying to enter. No.3..there is a probationary period to determine if the kid is proficient and if not, they are tossed back into the public school system. Parental involvement is a necessity, there is no public provided transportation, it's left up to the parent. No.4 the taxpayers of the state would rip the lawmakers to bloody shreds when they are put on the hook for private school tuition when public is *free*. The folks who send their kids to private pay property taxes and separate tuition besides to get their kid away from the riff raff in public schools and would organize a class action against the lawmakers for even daring to consider such a stupid move. What many don't understand is this, the majority of failing schools in Tennessee are in Memphis, Davidson, Knox and Hamilton counties and consistently fail year after year. Think about this, we now pay for 14 years just to get a kid thru 12th grade and it's money down a rathole. Ask the property owners who must pay taxes or, just advocate for more pre-k like you did last year and get another raise on your property taxes. Be careful what you wish for, you just might get it!!!!!!

By: kellyfretz on 2/22/13 at 12:36

No vouchers, no charters, no standardized testing, no common core....none of these things improve the public school system. IMO

By: runamuk51 on 2/22/13 at 9:16

No more throwing money at education. Put an end to public unions,incompetent teachers and clean out the over bloated administrative bureaucracy.. Teachers knew going in what the job entailed. End the absurd notion of tenure. Billions have been spent in the past 20 years and the country has graduated a large group of functional illiterates. Vouchers will create competition and I am all for the poor and minorities getting a chance for a quality education. Unfortunately the education cirriculum is all about political correctness and revisionist history. Teach kids to read, write and proper grammar . The PC liberals who hold a monopoly on public education have been the stewards of a disasterous and immoral failure. No amount of money going into public education will amount to any successful outcome with the current dynamic in place.

By: russellmroberts on 2/23/13 at 10:26

I strongly support school choice for ALL student families. Freedom to choose a school should not be limited to the very poorest in the very worst schools in the state. Tax dollars should follow any student to the school of their choice. Wouldn't schools be stronger if there was broad school choice because schools would actually compete to keep the "customer" satisfied. We understand in other businesses that competition always benefits the consumer of the service. Don’t exclude tax paying families from also having school choice just because their kids are not currently in a train-wrecked school.

Real school choice for families should include both public/government managed schools AND privately run schools. Two of my kids attend Clarksville Christian School because of the Christian values that are emphasized in addition to strong academics. That's an important choice for our family, but maybe something else is more important to yours. I support your right to choose a school either way. It hurts me because I know families who currently want choice, but cannot personally afford it, so their children must attend a government run school that they don’t deem as the best for their child.

By: pswindle on 2/23/13 at 10:34

You are getting ready to open a can of worms that you will not be able to get back in the can. It takes more than tuition money for private schools and most of the private schools will not accept the vouchers. The private schools will not accept the idea of public money and the inference of public policy.

By: mg357 on 2/23/13 at 11:09

mg357..Exactly pswindle! Great sacrifice comes with private school and most have no clue that not only are those parents outlaying money in addition to paying taxes for *free* public schools. As for accepting vouchers, again you are correct that the privately funded schools won't accept them under any circumstances, that would be a shutout. Also such a move of force on private schools would invite lawsuits against the instigators of such a move. Taxpayers would be up in arms so, it's an idea fraught with dire consequences should it transpire.

By: russellmroberts on 2/23/13 at 2:33

I think whether or not private schools accept tax money following the child to the school of their choice is ultimately dependent on whether or not too many government regulations and mandates are attached. A private school would certainly have to consider whether or not accepting voucher students would force it to give up too much of its autonomy or compromise its mission or standards. I think the governor’s task force already surveyed private schools to ask about their willingness to accept voucher students. If I’m right about that, then I expect the answer is largely known and there would not be an effort to proceed if some private schools didn't indicate a willingness under the right terms. Anyway, I’ll admit some speculation on my part here. Thanks for thoughtful responses.

By: ConservativeSailor on 2/24/13 at 3:50

For once, I agree with Haslam. Financially needy, worst schools. The comments I see here and the general attitude of the Progressives in the State seem to say "goodies for everybody ... but don't send them to religious schools".
Open it up and you flatten the curve. The kids who get it should also be measured at least annually to see if the benefit to them is worth the cost. If a student is not at or above grade level in a couple of years on the vouchers, then the student should be removed from the program. One chance. If the taxpayers front the bill, the student and parent(s) should SIGN a written agreement that they will WORK for better grades. No improvement, no vouchers.