Harwell Cautious on Vouchers, Ramsey Assertive

While Gov. Bill Haslam calls school vouchers potentially one of the most contentious legislative issues on the horizon, Speaker of the House Beth Harwell said Thursday she doesn’t see passage of a voucher bill without a “great deal of discussion.”

Harwell said she would want a plan designed specifically for Tennessee, not just taking what other states have done.

“My personal thought on vouchers is if we’re going to proceed we need to be very careful. There are a lot of questions,” Harwell said. “We’ve put a lot of additional work on our public school teachers for this evaluation process. To allow children to come out and go into a private system where those teachers don’t have to have the same system, I think it’s sending a mixed message to our teachers.

“I would say we have a lot to do in public education yet, and I’d like to stay focused on what we’re doing in our public schools. We have an excellent public charter school bill in this state that I’d like to see continue. Because I think they’re more of the answers to our public school needs.”

The Senate passed a school voucher bill in the last legislative session. But the House balked, putting off its bill for 2012. The concept in HB388 is to provide children from low-income families in the state’s four largest counties the opportunity to receive a scholarship, commonly called a voucher, to attend a school of their choice, including another public school in the district, a public charter school or a private school.

The debate has been intense, as many advocates for public schools say vouchers would only subsidize private schools that want the money. Proponents of vouchers say they are a way to give families choice among options they otherwise would not have.

“I think there are House members that have very legitimate concerns,” Harwell said. “I haven’t polled it. I don’t know whether the support is there (to pass it) or not.”

Harwell said the bill presents broad possibilities.

“The way the bill is drafted, I think many of our sponsors think, ‘Well, this will allow them to attend perhaps a Catholic school or perhaps a Baptist school.’ And that’s fine. But it would also allow them to attend a Muslim school, and I could go on and on.

“I think there are some questions that haven’t been fully vetted yet on vouchers, and I’d like to continue to study it.”

Should the voucher issue be hotly debated, it would follow a legislative session in 2011 in which education dominated discussion, with the Legislature making changes to teacher tenure and teachers’ collective bargaining status. Heading into the last session, many people expected the focus to be on the jobs picture and how the economy would impact the state budget. But education measures captured most of the attention, sometimes in combative ways.

Meanwhile, Harwell said it’s important to “stay the course” on the new teacher evaluation process the state has adopted.

“It’s a necessary component to the Race to the Top funding we received,” Harwell said. “We can’t back away from the importance of evaluations. We need to know who our good teachers are and who aren’t.”

The evaluation process has created considerable backlash over time constraints and fairness issues. Harwell endorsed adjustments to the process that Commissioner of Education Kevin Huffman initiated that will streamline the process, mostly for principals.

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey said Thursday that after the first year of the evaluation process there may be adjustments but that once the state gets through the current year that most teachers will say the system is helping them.

“I don’t see us backing down,” Ramsey said. “We’re getting national attention right now in the state of Tennessee for some of the education reforms we’re doing.”

Ramsey said he talked Thursday to Michelle Rhee, a nationally recognized education reform advocate who heads the reform-minded StudentsFirst organization.

“Something I am big on is starting at least a pilot project for school choice here in the state of Tennessee, some education scholarships,” Ramsey said.

“If you have children trapped in failing schools and their parents don’t have the means to allow them to go to an alternative then we need to start with a small, pilot project, much along the lines of what Sen. Brian Kelsey is bringing forward, and be able to allow those students to have some choice. It’s just unfair that they’re trapped in these schools.”

He said Rhee’s organization is willing to help with public relations where he says Republicans have been mischaracterized as “beating up on teachers.”