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School-Voucher Bill Moving Forward in Legislature

The debate on school choice is underway in Tennessee Legislature and one measure, supported by Gov. Bill Haslam, is working its way forward.

Last week the Senate Education Committee approved the Tennessee Choice and Opportunity Scholarship Act, sponsored by Chattanooga Republican Todd Gardenhire, on a vote of 8-0.

Senate Bill 999 would provide scholarships for private-school tuition to low-income students in the state’s worst-performing public schools.

The total number of vouchers the state would award would gradually increase from 5,000 available scholarships in the 2015-16 school year to a peak of 20,000 from the 2018-19 school year forward. The fiscal note on the legislation indicates a cost of $125,000 for the Department of Education to implement the policy.

The House companion legislation — HB1049 — sponsored by Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, also easily cleared the House Education Planning & Administration subcommittee last week on a vote of 7-1, though not without debate.

Rep. Kevin Dunlap, a Rock Island Democrat who is also a teacher, said the “gains and strides” made in education the last few years would be endangered by potentially removing $70 million from local school district. Dunlap said he’s “very, very concerned about the future of public education” as a result.

Rep. Dunn said critics of school vouchers, like Dunlap, appear more interested in protecting the status quo and putting “the emphasis on the system” rather than focusing on academic achievement outcomes.

“I’d like to put emphasis on the student,” said Dunn.

The Tennessee Education Association, many local school officials across the state and most Democrats in the Legislature have steadfastly opposed enabling parents to spend public monies on private education for their children.

“You’re taking away funding from an already underfunded school and putting it in vouchers. I don’t think it’s productive for public schools or private schools,”said House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh told the Memphis Daily News in February.

A February 2013 MTSU Poll found that while 46 percent of Tennesseans oppose vouchers, 40 percent favor the idea and 12 percent were undecided at the time.

Dunn’s legislation is scheduled to be heard in full Committee next Tuesday. Gardenhire’s Senate bill is assigned to the Finance Committee, but has not been scheduled for a hearing yet.

Another school choice proposal, sponsored by Germantown Republican Brian Kelsey, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has not received as warm a welcome.

Both Haslam and Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey have said that Kelsey’s legislation is unlikely to be funded, even if it passes the Legislature.

Haslam told reporters during a press conference last week that Gardenhire’s proposal was in line with what he’s indicated the administration would be willing to fund, and as such, he intends to fund that legislation rather than Kelsey’s more expansive plan.

While both Kelsey and Haslam are supporters of vouchers, they have clashed over the scope of such legislation in the past. In 2013, Ramsey pointed the finger at Kelsey as to why the voucher bill failed in the Senate. Kelsey had indicated earlier that year that he wanted to amend Haslam’s proposal to extend it to more Tennessee students.

Alexander Gives School Choice Speech at Brookings Institution

Press release from U. S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn.; February 4, 2015:

Outlines What Federal Government Can do to Help States Support School Choice for Parents

WASHINGTON, D.C., Feb. 4 – In a speech at the Brookings Institution today, Senate education committee Chairman U.S. Sen.Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) questioned why popular and successful federal programs support parents choosing child care and colleges for their children, but it is still “so hard to apply the same sorts of choices to elementary and secondary schools.”

“Allowing students to choose among schools is not a new idea for the federal government. Allowing federal dollars to follow students has been a successful strategy in American education for 70 years. In 1944, the G.I. Bill allowed veterans to choose among colleges, public or private.

Today, about $136 billion in federal grants and loans continue to follow students to the college or university of their choice.”

Alexander detailed four ways the federal government can help allow parents to choose their child’s school: Alexander’s bill, Scholarships for Kids, to allow states to let 24 billion in existing federal dollars follow the low income child to the public or private school they chose to attend; the Choice Act, by Senator Tim Scott (R-S.C.), to allow federal dollars for disabled students to follow those children to the schools their parents believe provide the best services; expansion of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program; and expansion of charter schools.

The text of the senator’s speech follows:

I am delighted to be here, but I should warn you: Based on my track record, I’m probably not your most reliable observer on school choice.

If I take you back to September 1992, I gave a speech at Ashland University in Ohio and I predicted that by the year 2000 “school choice will not be an issue.”

I suggested that an Ashland student writing a thesis in 2000 ought to make the subject parental choice of schools, because by then, I said, “it will be a matter of history.

“Your colleagues will wonder along with you as you examine this strange era when we granted government monopolies control of the most valuable and important enterprises in town, and so many people fought furiously to keep doors to many of the best schools closed to poor children.

“They will ask, how could this have ever happened in America, at a time when the ideas of freedom, choice and opportunity were sweeping the rest of the world?”

My prediction might not have been right, but not because we didn’t try.

In 1984, I gave a speech at the University of the South outlining the “deep ruts” into which American K-12 education had fallen. One of those was the lack of school choice for parents.

In 1985, the National Governors Association (NGA) embarked on a project called “Time for Results.” We divided into seven task forces, each chaired by a governor, to ask seven of the toughest questions you could ask about American education. One of those questions was, “Why not let parents choose the schools their children attend?” The task force working on that question was chaired by the Democratic governor of Colorado, Richard Lamm, who said then: “You know, it is interesting that America is a land of choices. We have 100 breakfast cereals to choose from, 200 different makes of cars. But in this one educational area…we have not done a lot in choice.”

Then in 1992, President Bush proposed his “GI Bill for Children,” which was a plan to allow states and cities to give $1,000 annual scholarships in new federal dollars to each child of a middle- and low-income family in a participating state or locality.

Families could spend the scholarships at any lawfully operated school – public, private or religious.

And up to half of the scholarship could be spent on other academic programs, like a Saturday math tutoring program or a summer accelerated language course.

That year, the Carnegie Foundation had reported that 28 percent of our nation’s parents would like to send their child to a different school.

Today, that number is even higher – it is, in fact, more than twice as high. A recent [2013] Luntz Global study found that 64 percent of parents said that “if given the financial opportunity,” they would send one or all of their children to a different school.

SINCE 1992

The last 23 years have seen some positive changes in the ability of parents to choose their children’s schools.

Today all 50 states and Washington, D.C. offer to some students alternatives to the school they would normally be assigned based on their residence.

Approximately 15 percent of school-age children attend a school other than their school of residence through open-enrollment programs.

Policies in 42 states allow some, or all, parents to send their children to public schools outside their districts.

Of those 42 states—15 states require districts to participate, 23 allow them to participate, and 3 require it specifically for low-income students and students in failing schools.

In 31 states, parents are allowed to choose among schools within their district.

Of those 31 states—16 states require districts to participate, 10 allow them to participate, and 6 require it for low-income students or students in failing schools 6 states.

More than 2.5 million – or nearly 5% of all public school children – are enrolled in more than 6,000 public charter schools in 42 states and D.C. Typically parents choose to enroll their children in these schools.

In addition, today more than 300,000 children are served by 41 private school choice programs across 19 states, D.C., and Douglas County, Colorado.  These programs often give students who meet certain criteria—usually based on income, special needs, or academic performance—an opportunity for a voucher, tax credit program, or education savings account to allow them to attend private schools.

Also, the option for homeschooling is available in all states and parents of about 3 percent of school-age children choose to homeschool.

FEDERAL ROLE

Allowing students to choose among schools is not a new idea for the federal government.

Allowing federal dollars to follow students has been a successful strategy in American education for 70 years.

In 1944, the G.I. Bill allowed veterans to choose among colleges, public or private.

Today, about $136 billion in federal grants and loans continue to follow students to the college or university of their choice.

Just last year, Congress reauthorized the $2.4 billion Child Care and Development Block Grant program, or CCDBG, which, when combined with other federal and state funding, helps approximately 900,000 families pay for child care of their choice while they work or attend school, mostly through vouchers.

These are among the most successful and popular federal programs—why is it so hard to apply the same sorts of choices to elementary and secondary schools?

POSSIBLE SOLUTIONS

What can the federal government do now to expand the opportunity parents have to choose the most appropriate school for their children?

1. Scholarships for Kids: This is a bill I introduced that would use $24 billion of the federal dollars we spend each year on K-12 education and allow states to create $2,100 scholarships to follow 11 million low-income children to any public or private school of their parents’ choice.

Also, the discussion draft I’ve just released to fix No Child Left Behind gives states the option of using $14.5 billion in Title I money to follow 11 million low income children to the public school they attend.

Most people agree that Title I money, which is supposed to help low-income kids, gets diverted to different schools because of a formula that targets money to districts based on how much states spend per student. That is largely influenced by teacher salaries.

The simplest way to solve that problem is to let that money follow the child to the school they attend. You could do that to just public schools, which has been the tradition with Title I money, or to private schools, which is what I would prefer.

2. The CHOICE Act: This is a proposal by Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) to allow about $11 billion the federal government now spends for children with disabilities to follow those 6 million children to the schools their parents believe provide the best services.

I think it’s important to note that these bills do not require states to do anything—instead they give them the option to have money follow the child.

3. The DC Opportunity Scholarship Program:  Senator Scott’s CHOICE Act would also expand the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program that began in 2004 and has provided about 6,000 low-income students in Washington, D.C. with the opportunity to receive a scholarship to attend a private school of their parents’ choice. Today, far more parents in the city have applied for the scholarships than have received them.

4. Expanding charter schools: In my final year as education secretary under President George H. W. Bush, I wrote every school superintendent in America asking them to try this new idea from Minnesota called “start-from-scratch schools.” At the time there were only 12 of them. They were the first charter schools. Today there are more than 6,000.

Charter schools have had strong bipartisan support—including from President Clinton and Secretary Duncan.

We’ve got in our discussion draft provisions that would streamline and update the existing Charter Schools Program to:

Provide grants to State entities to start new charter schools and to replicate or expand high-quality charter schools.

Provide grants to entities to enhance credit methods to finance charter school facilities.

Provide grants to charter management organizations, like KIPP or Rocketship in my home state of Tennessee, to replicate or expand high-quality charter schools.

Our goal is to grow the federal investment in expanding and replicating high-quality charter schools with a demonstrated record of success, and hold charter schools accountable for their performance.

Other senators also have some good proposals: Senators Paul and Lee both have bills to allow federal dollars from Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act to follow low-income children to the public or private school of their parents’ choice. Senator Rubio has a bill that creates a new federal tax credit for individual and corporate donations to organizations that provide low-income students with private school scholarships.

NEXT STEPS

As for the future, I think I’ve learned my lesson—I’m not about to make a prediction.

It looks like it will be a while before school choice will be a matter of history.

But the progress so many have made is impressive—there is plenty of opportunity to do more.

As Ross Perot told me in 1984, “Changing the public schools of Texas was the hardest, meanest, bloodiest thing I’ve ever tried to do.”

Since I’m not going to make a prediction then I’ll end with a question—the same one I asked in 1992: If we trust parents to choose child care for their children, and we trust them to help their children choose a college to attend—and both those systems have been so successful – why do we not also trust them to choose the best elementary or high school for their children?

Beacon Releases Report on School Choice in TN

Press release from the Beacon Center of Tennessee; February 25, 2013:

NASHVILLE – The Beacon Center of Tennessee today released a new publication highlighting the school choice stories of families across the state. The report, The Choice is Ours, tells how opportunity scholarships have empowered two Tennessee mothers to obtain a top-notch education for their sons. It also explains how other parents struggle to find quality education options for their children.
The Choice is Ours is part of a Beacon publication series called “Faces of Freedom,” which provides real-life stories of real-life citizens, so that Tennesseans can better understand the impact public policy has on their lives.

When it comes to education, ZIP codes dictate the fate of many Tennessee families. This one-size-fits-all approach leads children across the state to be zoned for schools that fail to meet their unique needs.

“The stories of the families featured in The Choice is Ours stress the positive impact a quality education can have on a child’s life,” said Beacon Center Director of Policy Trey Moore. “While some families are fortunate to have these options, too many remain trapped in schools that fail to meet their needs. That needs to change.”

The report outlines Tennessee’s poor education performance and calls for empowering parents to choose the schools that are best for their children. The report comes as lawmakers consider various proposals to provide greater access to better schools, whether they are private, charter, or public schools.

The full report can be downloaded at http://www.beacontn.org/wp-content/uploads/The-Choice-is-Ours.pdf. Hardcopies can be requested by contacting (615) 383-6431 or info@beacontn.org.

The Beacon Center of Tennessee’s mission is to change lives through public policy by advancing the principles of free markets, individual liberty, and limited government. Visit online at www.BeaconTN.org.

TN Children’s Group Launches Statewide School Choice Radio Campaign

Press release from the Tennessee Federation for Children; February 8, 2013:

NASHVILLE, Tenn., Feb. 8, 2013 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ — The Tennessee Federation for Children today announced a statewide radio campaign designed to educate the public on the need for bipartisan support to bring expanded educational options to Tennessee families.

The campaign, which begins today in the Knoxville and Chattanooga markets, will talk about the need for families, especially children in low-income families, to have access to additional educational options. Legislation that would create a scholarship program for children from low-income families is currently being considered.

This is the start of a robust media campaign to encourage legislators and parents to get involved in the fight for educational choice and help every child access a great school, regardless of their zip code.

“We want our children to receive the best possible education,” said Kimberly Kump , a spokesperson for the Tennessee Federation for Children. “We are committed to working with lawmakers to see legislation passed that will empower parents to choose the school that best fits their child’s needs.”

Many Tennessee children need access to better educational opportunities. Three out of four Tennessee eighth graders are not proficient in Math. Only five states rank lower.

Legislation would create an Opportunity Scholarship Program for children in low to middle-income families to attend the school of their parents’ choice. Similar programs around the country are helping to improve educational outcomes for disadvantaged students.
Nationwide, more than 245,000 students are currently enrolled in one of the 32 publicly funded private school choice programs in 16 states and Washington, D.C.

Legislature May Reach School Choice Accord in 2013

One of the GOP’s strongest advocates of school choice in Tennessee believes the political environment may be ripe for passing voucher or “opportunity scholarships” legislation next year.

Germantown Sen. Brian Kelsey said he’s hopeful that the governor-appointed task force report released late last month will provide the foundation for a policy that can gain support in both chambers of the Republican-run Tennessee General Assembly.

In the past, legislation giving parents access to taxpayer-funded scholarships for sending their children to private schools has passed the Senate but stalled in the House.

Kelsey said he expects Gov. Bill Haslam and his administration officials to play a central role in education policy discussions related to school-choice vouchers in the coming months, and that that could have the effect of comforting Republicans who’ve been hesitant to jump on board with the experiment.

“House members were not familiar with this concept back in 2011 when we first presented it to them,” said Kelsey. “House members are much more comfortable with the idea of giving low-income children more options.”

Kelsey sees more scholarship money being available for kids, and also pointed to a growing consensus that any voucher law should apply to all 95 counties, not just the four counties with the highest number of low-income students, which was a plank of the 2011 bill.

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey has said the state Senate again will work aggressively to pass a law on school vouchers.

“It’s blatantly unfair that we doom children to failure simply because of the zip code they’re born in, and their parents, if they choose, ought to have a choice,” said Ramsey, R-Blountville. “I’m in favor of it, and I think you will see the Senate take the lead in that.”

He also criticized public school officials who have been opposing vouchers.

“It’s not going to hurt public education. It’s really not. It’s just that they don’t want competition,” he said. “They throw up every red flag, every red herring they possibly can as opposed to saying, ‘We don’t want competition.’”

Voucher programs in the state have faced heavy opposition from the Tennessee Education Association and Metro Nashville Public Schools.

Gary Nixon, executive director of the Tennessee Board of Education, who served on the governor’s nine-member opportunity scholarship task force, said he has “no idea” what shape legislation may ultimately take. He said, though, that he thinks any child accessing tax dollars to go to private school ought to face the same testing that public school children undergo to gauge their achievement progress.

“I feel very strongly about that,” Nixon said.

Nixon said he could see himself supporting a voucher program in Tennessee if it is limited to lower-income children and is used as “another arrow in the quiver for students in low-performing schools to have an opportunity to improve their education and outcomes.”

He said he does not favor opening vouchers up for all students in the government’s school system.

“I am a public school educator. I believe in public schools,” he said.

Opportunity scholarships are apparently popular with Tennessee voters. Nearly 60 percent of them support school vouchers, according to a survey released jointly over the summer by the Beacon Center of Tennessee and the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, both supporters of school choice.

Trent Seibert and Mark Engler contributed to this report.

Huffman: TN Report Card a Tool for Improvement, Parental Involvement

The Tennessee Department of Education has released a searchable 2012 schools report card, which offers detailed breakdowns of successful and failing schools across the state.

“I actually think this report card gives a better lens into the school’s absolute performance in growth,” state Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman said at the unveiling of the website Wednesday. For example, “If I were a parent in a low-performing school but with high growth I would feel like, ‘This is good, this is a good sign that the school is starting to make some progress.’”

Here’s the problem, though: For parents with students in failing schools, such as Brick Church Middle School in Davidson County, which has received ‘F’ grades from the state three years running for academic achievement in science, math and language, or in Memphis high schools which have double-digit dropout rates, there is little to be done except look at the numbers and hope for the best.

That’s because in many cases parents cannot select another school for their child. They are stuck with the hand they are dealt.

“Some districts have good choice opportunities. Other districts don’t,” Huffman said. “I think parents should be engaging themselves at the school level and engaging themselves at the district level to ask for and demand the kinds of choices and options that show that their kids have the ability to attend high-performing schools.”

Huffman’s comments come at a time when the debate over school choice has consumed Metro Nashville Public Schools officials. The Legislature next year will likely consider the creation of a statewide agency to authorize charter schools, taking away that power from local school boards.

Huffman said that he was pleased that the scorecard showed statewide upticks in both math and science.

“Most schools across the state had impressive gains,” Huffman said. “We feel good about our progress last year, but we also feel like there is a long way to go before we feel close to satisfied with how things are going.”

The scorecard also details categories such as disciplinary actions and dropout rates. For example, it shows the number of suspensions increased at Davidson County schools to 11,023 students in 2012 from 10,404 students in 2011.

So, how do failing schools get fixed? According to the state, one of the ways is providing more money to the schools.

“Well, we don’t punish low-performing schools,” Huffman said. Indeed, the lowest-scoring five percent of schools have a range of options from having the state take them over to being infused with additional cash to pay for more instructional help.

To search the state’s report card, click here.

To see the full Department of Education news release, click here.

Trent Seibert can be reached at trent@TNReport.com via Twitter @trentseibert or 615-669-9501.

Dems Say GOP Rejecting Local Gov’t Control In Charter Moves

Democrats on Capitol Hill Tuesday accused Republicans of abandoning their mantra of local government control in their handling of a proposed charter school for Nashville.

Fired up over the Haslam administration’s fining Metro schools because its school board rejected the charter school application, Democrats said GOP leaders had adopted for the “big government” mindset they purport to detest. Still, Democrats say they, too, are no stranger to falling back on government oversight.

“I’m not saying there’s not some times when the federal government should step in or the state government should not step in and overrule local government, but they’re doing it on a pretty consistent level up here now when one time that was something they were really opposed to,” said House Democratic Caucus Leader Mike Turner, of Old Hickory, following a press conference with four other local Democratic legislators and candidates.

The state Department of Education last week slapped Metro Nashville Public Schools with what amounts to a $3.4 million fine for ignoring the state Board of Education’s order to approve a charter school application from Arizona-based Great Hearts Academies. The Metro schools board voted twice against the state board’s order to OK the proposal, saying that the school planned for the affluent West End neighborhood lacked a diversity plan.

Members of the minority party — which has little pull on Capitol Hill — said they’d like to see the state continue to meet and work with the school district in hopes of dodging the fine. Joining the press conference were Rep. Sherry Jones, Rep. Brenda Gilmore, Rep. Mike Stewart and Phillip North, a Democratic candidate for state Senate.

Stewart, of Nashville, said he takes issue with how the administration has carried out the charter school law. He said the Legislature never meant to give the state the power to ultimately approve charter schools against a local school district’s will.

But the section in law giving the state such authority predates Haslam and was passed in 2002 when Democrats still had control of the House of Representatives.

According to the Tennessee Charter School Act:

“If the state board finds that the local board’s decision was contrary to the best interests of the pupils, school district, or community, the state board shall remand such decision to the local board of education with written instructions for approval of the charter. The decision of the state board shall be final and not subject to appeal. The (local school district), however, shall be the chartering authority.”

Turner asserts that the Metro school board followed the state law to a “t,” and says the charter school operators never produced a satisfactory diversity plan, as outlined by the state Board of Education.

The state Board seems to disagree. The board sent out a statement backing up the Haslam administration’s decision after news broke of the state fine.

Beacon Center: August 2012 Policy Snapshot

Newsletter from the Beacon Center of Tennessee; August 30, 2012: 

Happy Capital Day?

Have you ever wondered why we have a special holiday to celebrate labor but not the capital creation that makes labor possible? From the Foundation for Economic Education’s Lawrence Reed: “[T]his year on Labor Day weekend, I’ll also be thinking about the remarkable achievements of inventors of labor-saving devices, the risk-taking venture capitalists who put their own money (not your tax money) on the line and the fact that nobody in America has to dig a ditch with a spoon or cut his lawn with a knife…Labor Day and Capital Day. I know of no good reason why we should have just one and not the other.” Read his entire article here.

TN Watchdog attracts national attention

Last month, Chris Butler, our director of government accountability and editor of Tennessee Watchdog, published an attention-grabbing story about how Memphis welfare recipients were using their taxpayer money to make purchases in liquor stores and buy tickets to tour Graceland. Television stations as far away as San Francisco covered the story, and radio shows from Ohio to New Hampshire picked it up as well. Even the national Washington Examiner made mention of our story, which you can read here. For the original investigative report, visit TennesseeWatchdog.org.

School choice debate heating up

The Beacon Center has made enacting a school choice program a top priority for the 2013 legislative session of the General Assembly. But we’re not waiting on lawmakers to return to Nashville to start the discussion. As Channel 4 News notes in an interview with Beacon CEO Justin Owen, the governor has appointed a task force to study the matter, which will report to him this November. It is widely expected that this will be the hottest topic next session, and Beacon will play a crucial role educating our fellow Tennesseans about the benefits of school choice. Watch the Channel 4 News interview here.

Car bailouts, bank bailouts…state bailouts?

The federal government has gone on a bailout spree, giving banks and car companies a handout. Could some states be next? In an op-ed that appeared in the Tennessean earlier this week, Beacon CEO Justin Owen joined the Illinois Policy Institute’s Ted Dabrowski in warning against a federal bailout of the states. Owen and Dabrowski explain why this would be devastating for Tennessee taxpayers and call on Congress to swiftly refuse any bailout of irresponsible states. Read the entire article at BeaconTN.org.

 

Charter Schools at Extremes of Performance Rankings

In the state’s ranking of best and worst performing schools, charter schools were a mixed bag last year.

Two charter schools made the state’s top 5 percent list for showing big academic gains, but five showed up as schools with the worst academic records.

“It really reflects that a lot of students come to us two or three school years behind,” said Matt Throckmorton, executive director of the Tennessee Charter Schools Association.

“Those five schools that are on the bottom list, decisions are being made on each case whether they’ll be kept open. Right now, really hard decisions are being made about those schools, and that’s how it should be,” he said.

Education officials across the state are weighing how willing they are to allow further school choice amid push-back from Metro Nashville Public Schools, which blocked a Phoenix-based charter school operator from opening up shop. Meanwhile, there is an effort by Republicans to craft an outline for a school voucher system, which would allow students to leave their zoned public schools.

The rankings examined academic performance of the state’s 1,736 schools, including 40 charter schools, during the last school year. The state is calling the 169 schools at the front 5 percent of the pack “Reward Schools.”

“We spend a lot of time sometimes talking about things that aren’t going right,” Gov. Bill Haslam said in the gymnasium at Kenrose Elementary School in Brentwood before announcing the top schools Monday.

“But we want to make certain when things are going well and schools are doing a great job and teachers are doing a great job and students are working hard, that we do a great job to celebrate that,” he said.

Tennessee is home to 48 operating charter schools this year, following moves by Haslam and lawmakers to loosen laws allowing more of the publicly held but privately run schools to to open, although after a review process. Unlike traditional schools, charters can run by different rules, like hold longer school days or school years. But they can be closed down easily after repeated poor performance or mismanagement.

This summer, MNPS stonewalled charter school operator Great Hearts Academies amid concerns the institution would lack diversity by opening up in Nashville’s affluent west side. The district then snubbed the Tennessee Board of Education by refusing to take its recommendation to approve the school, anyway, in violation of state law.

State education officials don’t appear particularly worried about the situation.

“I’m confident that Metro Nashville’s going to wind up in compliance with the law soon,” said Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman, who this month said the state would take “appropriate action” to force the district to approve the school.

Huffman and other education officials and lawmakers are also in the midst of crafting options for how the state could adopt a school voucher program, which would allow parents to shift tax dollars from their zoned public school to send their students to the public, charter, private or parochial school of their choice.

“I think we’re still a ways away from knowing where we’re going to go,” said Huffman. “I don’t think it’s a foregone conclusion.”

The task force expects to put forth several recommendations on how to approach a school voucher program, otherwise known as giving “opportunity scholarships.” The panel plans to meet Sept. 26 and offer a report in November, although the governor has said for him to consider moving forward the proposed voucher program must make more than an “incremental difference.”

Governor Ruminating on Education Reform, Round 3

Tennessee students are heading back to class this month, and education reform is likely to be increasingly back in the news heading into the November elections and beyond.

So far, few solid policy directions and details have emerged, but the governor said this week he and his advisers are wrestling with issues ranging from school choice to expanding taxpayer-funded pre-K to better preparing post-secondary students for the workforce.

Here’s where things stand at present:

Vouchers Not a ‘Done Deal’

A contingent of legislative Republicans — among them the Senate’s most powerful member,  Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey — have for some time asserted a commitment to expanding publicly funded choices available to parents who worry their children aren’t getting the highest-quality, individualized education they deserve through traditional government-run schools.

Their plan is to establish a system of “opportunity scholarships,” or vouchers, that will allow parents to put taxpayer resources toward the public, charter, private or parochial school of their choice. The Senate OK’d that plan in 2011 but it failed to gain similar momentum in the House.

But Haslam is still hesitant. He said that for the plan to come to legislative fruition a lot of complicated policy obstacles and political pitfalls will have to be negotiated. Last year the governor himself put the brakes on a school-voucher proposal, opting instead to appoint a task force to study the issue and report back in November.

The Tennessee-based free-market Beacon Center and a national group called the Friedman Foundation for Education Choice this spring released a poll they co-conducted suggesting that support for vouchers is solid in the Volunteer State. However, the governor told reporters this week he’ll need to be convinced a voucher system will result in more than just an “incremental difference” in the state’s education outcomes for him to put the weight of his administration behind it.

“I don’t think it’s a done deal,” he said of the voucher push. “That’s a political observation, not a personal observation.”

“In other words, whatever money is transferred with that child is enough to really provide the education but doesn’t wreck the existing school system. So getting that balance right I think will be the biggest challenge,” Haslam added.

The governor’s task force met Thursday and is expected to meet again Sept. 26.

Expanding Pre-K On Long To-Do List

Despite significant opposition from members of his own party, the governor has hinted he’d like to look into expanding the state’s pre-K program for low-income children.

But he’s not sure if that issue will make it into his legislative agenda come next year, he said.

“I’ve listed that as a possibility along with a whole gamut of other things that we should look at,” Haslam said.

“I still think its applicability is probably more in our low income high need areas. I don’t see a scenario where we’re going to have universal pre-K in Tennessee. Will we expand it or not? It’s in the list to be debated out among a lot of other worthy potentials,” he said.

Studies of Tennessee’s pre-K program show mixed results. A state-commissioned study released last year indicates the effects of Tennessee’s Pre-K program diminish by third grade. Vanderbilt University’s Peabody Research Institute is currently attempting to “study of the effectiveness” of Pre-K in Tennessee, and says students showed an average gain of 82 percent in early literacy and math skills.

Higher Education Front & Center

Haslam says he’s committed to finding ways to improve education systems in hopes of raising the quality of graduates it churns.

Whether that means through policy-tweaking efforts within the administration or new legislation, the governor said he’s as this stage unsure.

“I think the first thing it impacts is how we budget,” Haslam said. “Whether there will be other legislative proposals, I don’t know I have an answer to that yet.”

“At the end of the day the most important thing we do, I think, in government, is we allocate capital. We allocate where money goes. And we have to get that right if we want to be a great state,” he said.

He’s taken to the road on this issue, holding a series of seven roundtable discussions across the state and a summit in Nashville earlier this year to dive into the pitfalls of the state’s current system and what the needs are of local employers.

What appears to be coming out of the hearings is that the state needs to do a better job of linking state funding with programs in high-demand fields like welding, nursing and engineering, he said.

Haslam added that fiscal disciple is still a primary concern to his administration across the board in state government, including public education. Anytime there arises a possibility of making additional taxpayer-funding available to higher education, such discussions must be coupled with efforts to improve financial efficiencies, said the governor.