After approving a handful of reforms to turn around the state’s struggling education system in recent years, Gov. Bill Haslam took his time deciding whether he’d propose adding another to the pile.
With a scant blueprint in hand from a panel that studied taxpayer-funded school vouchers last year, the governor pitched a plan to allow 5,000 low-income students from the state’s 83 worst schools to attend private school for nothing out of pocket.
The governor’s problem now is there’s a movement within his party’s ranks to go further than he is willing — laying the groundwork for a clash between the various factions of the GOP.
The idea is already unpopular among school boards, most state Democrats and a smattering of Republicans. But pro-voucher operatives in both chambers are plotting how they can go beyond the governor’s limited bill to make vouchers available to more students, likely those who belong to families with higher incomes.
“I just hope that it can serve as many children as possible and be a large enough bill that it could be a successful program,” said Sen. Brian Kelsey, a Germantown Republican who has championed the fight for school vouchers for years.
He is one of the few leading the pack for a more robust voucher system, despite insistence from Haslam to stick with a modest program, and reluctance from top leaders in the House of Representatives to step out of line with the governor.
Kelsey was tight-lipped on what his proposal would do, but another proposal circling the Capitol could allow students with families with up to $70,000 in annual income to attend private school for free, said Sen. Mark Norris, the upper chamber’s majority leader, who said he’s sticking with the governor’s version.
“There’s a lot of big talk, some loose talk about which program is more appealing. But there are also a number of legislators who don’t like any voucher program in the Senate, in my caucus,” he said.
“It seems to me if you want to embark on a new program, that any start is better than no start, and vouchers are controversial in the first instance. So those who want it all very quickly should probably be careful what they ask for. They may end up with nothing,” said Norris.
The crux of any voucher plan is to let parents take the taxpayer dollars now used to fund their child’s education in the public school system, and use it in place of full tuition at a private or parochial school of their choice. Fans of the plan argue that it gives parents more choice on where to send their child to school without changing neighborhoods, while opponents contend the program takes tax dollars and children with involved parents away from already cash-strapped and struggling public school districts.
As is, the governor’s plan would affect low-income students who qualify for free or reduced lunch from the worst 5 percent of schools in the state. That amounts to 35,000 eligible students, according to state officials, which includes those at a half-dozen Metro Nashville schools, a handful between Chattanooga and Knoxville and dozens in Memphis.
But the first year of the governor’s program would issue vouchers to a maximum of 5,000 students, less than 1 percent of the state’s 935,000 public school children.
Tension is beginning to simmer in the legislature. Kelsey has talked openly about hijacking the governor’s voucher plan and making the taxpayer-funded scholarships to private schools available to more
“Right now, quite frankly, it really only affects students mostly in Memphis. But there are others, obviously, who don’t want to expand, and we’ll just have to continue to have these conversations,” said Kelsey.
The Senate appears the most likely to approve a more robust “school voucher” program after having passed a program in 2011 before the House effectively killed the bill.
Just as when the House shelved the idea two years ago, the lower chamber is tentative about moving forward too fast on vouchers, said House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga.
“I’m with the governor. I don’t want to expand it either,” he said, adding he expects the lower chamber will stick with him. “I see holding firm.”
“All I know is on the House side, I think we want to go in a more measured approach and do it carefully and make sure we do it right, if we do anything,” he said.
Outside supporters are trying to encourage parents to become players in this battle. The state chapter of the American Federation for Children committed $800,000 on TV and radio advertising to win over the public on the merits of a larger voucher system.
The Beacon Center of Tennessee, which has produced several studies to back a voucher program, is also launching media buys. The Beacon Center — which refused to detail to The City Paper how much it is spending — began with radio ads shortly after Christmas and is now running commercials on TV, pointing out that three out of four students in the state struggle with reading, and test scores among Tennessee’s publicly educated children are among the worst in the country. By the end of the 30-second ad, it calls for scholarships and school choice for K-12 students.
“Our education performance is terrible. That’s a stark reality. Anyone that denies that themselves is part of the problem,” said Justin Owen, executive director of the Beacon Center. “One of the things we think we should do is empower parents to choose the schools that are best for their kids.”
The legislation needs a simple majority to pass. While that means 50 votes in the House of Representatives, it could also mean finding 50 votes to block a plan that leadership finds goes too far.
Democrats make up some 28 seats in the House of Representatives, and only one is an avid voucher fan, said the caucus chairman, Mike Turner. That means finding 23 Republican members to side with Democrats to derail a larger voucher program.
Rep. Jim Coley, a Bartlett, Tenn., Republican who sits on the House Education Committee, complains of “reform fatigue” and said so far he’s a “no” vote on vouchers.
“I think we have enough things going on right now. We need to look at what we put into place and how effective they’ve been in transforming student performance,” he said. “I’m tired of stirring the pot. I want to see what we’re cooking.”