Expect lots of discussion about whether taxpayers should send students to private schools on Capitol Hill next year, Gov. Bill Haslam said Thursday.
The governor said the state needs to have a serious discussion about a school vouchers program, but said he’s still undecided whether he’ll throw his full support behind a proposal due to him later this fall. A Haslam-appointed task force stopped short of firming up details of a proposed plan Wednesday.
“A lot of it depends on what it looks like. Let’s get the very best form, see what it looks like for Tennessee, then we as an administration will decide where we’ll be on that,” Haslam told reporters after a Nashville economic development announcement.
The state task force is still torn on key aspects of a proposal to use taxpayer money to pay for students to attend the private, parochial, charter or non-zoned public school of their choice. Major sticking points range from when the system would kick in to which students could cash in.
“You can get the policy right but still screw things up on the ground,” said Chris Barbic, a task force member and superintendent of the state’s Achievement School District, an arm of the state Department of Education charged with turning around failing schools.
Barbic, who founded a successful charter school in Texas before joining the Haslam administration in 2011, said he knows the state is juggling a handful of education reforms right now but said there’s no use in waiting to come up with a voucher plan.
“Parents get to figure out where they buy bread and toothpaste, and we’re going to limit their options on where they send their kids to school?” he said. “I have a hard time with that.”
The Republican-led General Assembly is anxious for the recommendations of the task force after the governor put off the issue of offering “opportunity scholarships” this year in favor of more study about what a voucher program would look like in Tennessee. Speakers of both chambers say they, too, expect vouchers to be a key issue in the 2013 legislative session.
Adopting a voucher concept would further the school choice movement in Tennessee, piggy-backing on a handful of charter school reforms over the last few years that lifted the cap on the number of allowed charter schools and opened enrollment beyond low-income and academically struggling students.
Choices are good, said Indya Kincannon, vice-chair of the Knox County Board of Education, who also sits on the task force. But the goal needs to be improving educational outcomes rather than simply offering choice, she said.
A teachers’ union representative said the state may be biting off more than it can chew, given this month’s fallout between the Department of Education and the second largest school district in the state over the high-profile denial of a charter school. On Capitol Hill there has been more talk of the state bypassing local school districts and taking over the entire approval process for new charters.
“The education reform plate right now is quite full,” said Jerry Winters, chief lobbyist for the Tennessee Education Association, the state’s largest teacher’s union. “To be moving in the direction of trying to take more money from public schools, subsidize wealthy people for private school tuition, it’s definitely moving in the wrong direction.”
Among issues up for debate within the task force are:
- Should students be eligible for vouchers based on their family’s income, their academic record or the performance of their school or district?
- Which private schools could students attend? How long would such schools have to be operation to be eligible to accept vouchers? And how would they test students and report their progress to the state?
- Should the state limit the number of vouchers issued? How many should the state permit?
- Is there enough time to implement the plan for the fall 2013 school year? And should the program go statewide or launch as a pilot program?
The panel expects to meet again in late October to firm up recommendations to hand to the governor in November. Haslam has said the results of the proposal must show more than an “incremental difference” in education outcomes in the state to win his approval. The governor told reporters Thursday he’s not sure how to measure that, yet.