Task force members can't agree on specifics of voucher program

Tuesday, November 13, 2012 at 4:55pm

A state task force charged with devising an ideal plan allowing parents to enroll their students in private schools on the taxpayer’s dime is still largely divided on the best way to go about it.

At the group’s highly anticipated final meeting, the Opportunity Scholarship Task Force struggled to agree on the specifics of a program it plans to recommend to Gov. Bill Haslam to consider pitching to lawmakers next year.

“It’s not a question of if we have more time, then we’re going to come up with the perfect solution,” said Kevin Huffman, commissioner of the state Department of Education.

“It’s a question of there are different potential options and there are pros and cons to all of them, and ultimately the General Assembly and the governor have to decide what they think,” he said.

Huffman declined to say whether or not the state should pursue a voucher program, which allows parents to send their students to private school using public tax dollars. Huffman said his job is to lay out the options and would not offer the governor further recommendations than what is in the report.

The task force has so far agreed that private schools should be screened before accepting students with vouchers, that schools must produce standardized test scores from students to hold the schools’ performances accountable, that scholarships should be limited to low-income students and that the amount of a scholarship should meet a minimum amount.

A key point of contention on the nine-member board was which students would be eligible for vouchers. While the committee agreed low-income students should be the focus, members were torn regarding whether those students should also come from failing schools or the students themselves be struggling academically.

It appears the task force’s 93-page report (a draft of which can be found here) will also include editor’s notes showing where the task force was split on several major issues, such as whether to provide transportation, offer the program either statewide or as a small pilot, what tests to use to keep private schools accountable for student performance, and how much the so-called “vouchers” would be worth when handed to the private school.

Despite those unresolved questions, Haslam virtually guaranteed that vouchers would be on the table next year when the legislature returns to Capitol Hill, he told The City Paper after the meeting. He said he is still unsure if it will be one of his top priorities.

“It’s hard for me to picture it not being discussed this year,” he said.

Haslam ordered legislators to back off talk about a voucher program in 2012 to give the task force time to lay out a program. The year before, a measure to launch a pilot program won approval in the state Senate but stalled in the House of Representatives.

Since then, momentum has been building for discussions on a voucher program. House Speaker Beth Harwell, who said she herself prefers the public school system, said her Republican peers in the chamber are more keen on giving parents more options on where to send their students to school after the Metro Nashville Public Schools board rejected a specific charter school application targeting West Nashville.

Legislative decisions on whether to write a voucher program into law will likely fall down to positions of rural lawmakers versus urban ones, said Jerry Winters, a lobbyist for the Tennessee Education Association, which opposes a voucher system.

“The details [are] what will kill this idea eventually,” he said.

“With some of the rural legislators, they see it as taking money out of their local school system,” said Winters. “Some of these local school systems are doing an outstanding job and [rural lawmakers] are going to be very hesitant to vote for a bill that is going to take money away from them.”

Draft Task Force Report.pdf5.11 MB

2 Comments on this post:

By: pswindle on 11/13/12 at 6:20

Kevin and his croonies are creating a mess that has no solution. If you think that some students will sit back and let some get vouchers and others not. All I can say, dream on and on. This will cause a Civil War right here in the state of TN. Private schools will not take direction from the state. They do not have to. The State Department of Education have lost their ever loving sense..

By: kellyfretz on 11/14/12 at 10:55

Maybe what needs to happen is the replacement of Kevin Huffman. He obviously has no idea what is best for the students in the metro school system. Enough politics! I am tired of our elected officials thinking they can change things to suit their pet projects and personal feelings. Charter schools do not help the public school system; they just take more money away from them.

I have several ideas how we can make public school better for our kids.
How about making sure class sizes in public schools are smaller? Smaller class size would allow teachers to be more effective.

How about making sure our kids are learning in a 21st century environment?

Everyone in the teaching profession admits that all kids learn differently. Keeping that in mind, then why are we still tormenting our children with TCAP's. They don't prove anything and I would love to know how far under the covers our government officials are with the company that creates these tests. You know there must be an enormous amount of money that goes into administering standardized testing. I read an article that said it cost $37.5 million annually in Washington State. I can only imagine how much we pay here in Tennessee.

Starting with our commissioner and governor, all the way down to our teachers, we should demand that they send their kids to public school. I'm sure things would be totally different if that were the case.

Here is a link to a petition I started regarding the $3.4 million that has been taken away from Metro Nashville public schools because Gov. Haslam and Mr. Huffman didn't get their way. Please sign it.