There appears to be majority support in the Tennessee General Assembly for passing some kind of school-choice voucher legislation this year.
While there’s certainly solid opposition among white Democrats and a smattering of House Republicans against adding taxpayer-funded vouchers into the public education mix, in the GOP supermajority the primary issue of contention isn’t whether to offer new choices, but rather where, under what circumstances and to how many students.
Gov. Bill Haslam is offering up a program he’s dubbed the “Tennessee Choice & Opportunity Scholarship Act.” It would grant tax-funded scholarships beginning next school year to 5,000 students in mostly failing urban schools.
Under Haslam’s plan—the result of a year-long task force study—certain students in Tennessee’s bottom 5 percent of schools would be able to attend private schools with state money covering tuition. Only students whose family income qualifies them for free school lunches would be eligible for the “opportunity scholarships.” The number of scholarships would rise to 20,000 by 2016.
However, some Republicans, particularly in the Senate, want to see vouchers implemented on a more aggressive timeline and involving a broader swath of students. Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey said earlier this legislative session that he anticipates the upper chamber will “pass a stronger bill” than what the governor is proposing.
“I’d like to open it up statewide,” said the Blountville Republican, who since 2007 has served as speaker of the Tennessee Senate. “I think the market will establish where it is needed.”
Tuesday, the state House Education Subcommittee gave Haslam’s legislation their thumbs up, passing House Bill 190 by a vote of 7-2. Two Democrats, Harold M. Love, Jr. of Nashville and John DeBerry, Jr. of Memphis, both African Americans, voted to move HB190 to the full education committee. The two “no” votes on the committee came from Joe Pitts , a Clarksville Democrat, and John Forgety, an Athens Republican.
On Wednesday, the Senate Education Committee started the conversation on their version of the bill, although no vote was taken.
Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, who’s carrying Haslam’s bill in the House, praised the governor’s proposal, saying its goal is to create “happy families and successful students.” Dunn, a member of the full House Education Committee and chairman of the lower chamber’s Calendar and Rules Committee, said he attended many of the task force meetings and “was very impressed with the questions that were asked.”
“I think because of the information gathered, the governor was able to take this discussion and recommend the bill you have before us,” Dunn said at Tuesday’s committee meeting.
Opponents of vouchers argue that the state has no place giving taxpayer money to private institutions, especially if it means less funding for struggling public schools. Critics also complained that private schools don’t always provide the same services for special-needs students as public schools..
“Most private schools have very little, if any, programs for youngsters with learning disabilities or youngsters who have English language-learner issues,” said Rep. Forgety, a former school superintendent who serves as vice chairman of the House Education Committee.
Speaking before the Senate Education Committee on Wednesday, Florida-based school-choice advocate Doug Tuthill asserted that contrary to fears typically expressed by voucher opponents, taxpayer-financed scholarships for K-12 students actually tend to improve the learning environment in public schools as whole. That is achieved by adding competitive market pressure on public educators to improve, as well as by providing incentives for students at the socioeconomic margins to seek better opportunities, said Tuthill, president of Step Up for Children.
“In many communities, we have found that we reduce the concentration of poverty in their schools — which also as a teacher I can tell you is a very positive thing, because the higher the concentration of poverty you have in a school, the more challenging it is,” added Tuthill, who described himself recently in a Huffington Post column advocating school choice as “a lifelong progressive Democrat (and) former president of two local teacher unions.”
“What’s happened is that we are bringing out the lowest performing kids and the highest poverty kids, and that benefits the school district,” Tuthill told senators on the committee.
Kelsey said later during the meeting that he hopes to include an amendment that would create a more “expansive” opportunity scholarship program that would “give a large number of students a chance at a much better education that they deserve.”
For his part, Gov. Haslam has indicated that he would like the bill to stay as it is. He furthermore maintains that he’s not simply shooting for the political center. “We really spent a year-long process to look at it, and we also had to look at it in light of everything else that we’re doing,” the governor told reporters on Feb. 27.
New polling data from Middle Tennessee State University shows Tennesseans are divided on the issue, with 46 percent of those polled saying they oppose the plan, while 40 percent support it. Twelve percent were unsure. Among the strongest supporters of a voucher system in the poll were racial minorities, who favored it 63 percent to 28.
John Klein Wilson, Amelia Morrison Hipps and Mark Engler contributed to this report.