GOP Support for School-Choice Legislation Lacking in House

Update: Gov. Bill Haslam has announced the formation of an “opportunity scholarship” task force intended to study the issue of vouchers “before legislation is pursued any further in this session.” The body is directed to report back to the governor’s office in “the fall of 2012,” long after the Legislature is expected to adjourn. The 2012 General Election is Nov. 6.

The governor plans to weigh in any day on whether to offer parents broader school choice options for their children next year, but high-ranking House leaders are hinting that idea is not in the cards for 2012.

Both the Republican Caucus chairwoman and the Education Committee chairman say they’d rather let the education reforms they passed this year soak in before pushing controversial legislation that would give parents in Memphis, Nashville, Knoxville and Chattanooga money to help send their children to different public, charter or private schools.

“We don’t need to be passing it yet,” said Chairman Richard Montgomery, R-Sevierville, the Education Committee chairman who helped halt the legislation last spring. “I think there’s a tremendous amount of other people who feel the same way I do, that it’s a good year to learn as much as we possibly can and see if that’s something we really want to do.”

“We did do a lot last year,” said Rep. Debra Maggart, GOP Caucus chairwoman. “I do think that the voucher conversation is very complicated. … I think you’ll see a good conversation about it.”

Parents would have been able to use taxpayer-funded scholarships, or vouchers, to send their children to schools of their choosing under a bill that stalled last year as the Republican-controlled legislature overhauled teacher tenure, eliminated collective bargaining, opened up the doors to virtual schools and loosened enrollment restrictions on charter schools.

The measure passed in the Senate 18-10 mainly on party lines in the spring, but House Republicans put the brakes on the bill in favor of waiting until 2012 to take it up again.

“I think there are some people who want to say, ‘Let’s cool things down, let’s let things work,’” said Rep. Bill Dunn, who plans to take another stab at the voucher bill next year. “And then I think there’s another camp that says, ‘Hey, we have the momentum going. Let’s go ahead and fix everything that we can.’”

Dunn, R-Knoxville, plans to make the bill more attractive by beefing up accountability requirements on schools accepting students admitted via vouchers and by reducing the state tax dollars that would follow each student out of their district school as they enter another institution.

Although the measure has already cleared the upper chamber, Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, has introduced a new piece of legislation to allow school vouchers, also known as “equal opportunity scholarships,” although it currently lacks a House sponsor.

But the House plans to spend most of its time reviewing the reforms it wrote into law last year, said Montgomery, like tweaking the evaluation scores teachers need to earn tenure, reviewing specific pieces of the teacher evaluation reforms and assessing results of the wider charter school provisions.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration has for months studied the voucher issue, and he has said he expects to announce his official position before the holiday.