Haslam: Let’s ‘Catch Our Breath’ on Education Reform in ’12

Gov. Bill Haslam says he put the brakes on a proposal to further open up school choice in Tennessee because the concept of vouchers has “too many unanswered questions” and the timing was off.

The plan to allow students to use taxpayer-funded vouchers like scholarships to attend the public, charter or private school of their parents’ choice was one of the most anticipated going into the next year’s legislative session, but the governor shut the door on that last week, saying he’d rather a task force delve into the subject for the next year.

“I didn’t think the timing was right,” the governor told reporters at the Second Harvest Food Bank in Nashville Tuesday. “A lot of people are saying, ‘Give us a chance to catch our breath here,’ which I thought, given everything that’s going on, was a fair request of them.”

The Republican-led legislature this year swept a pile of education reform bills into law, such as making teacher tenure more difficult to earn, eliminating collective bargaining and making it easier for students to enroll in charter schools. Meanwhile, the Department of Education this fall began implementing a new teacher evaluation system.

Although the Senate OK’d the vouchers bill in the spring, the proposal was left behind by House Republican leadership who opted to hold the bill over until 2012.

Haslam’s administration spent months trying to decide where it sat on the idea by studying how vouchers have been used in other states, whether they have worked well and what kind of effect they’ve had.

“We hadn’t really tried to say what would this look like in Tennessee? How much of the state’s money would go? What would be the ramifications of that?” Haslam told reporters.

The issue is now being passed off to a task force made up of education experts and some legislators who are expected to report back next fall — not far from the November election. A spokesman for the governor said his office does not yet know when the task force’s inital meeting will be.