Haslam Seeks Wide-Ranging Weigh-In of Perspectives on School Vouchers

Vouchers for students will be among the foremost topics of education reform talks Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam plans to have this summer, but the governor said Tuesday he wants to hear all sides of the issue.

Haslam spoke to the Southern Legislative Conference, a meeting of legislators, in Memphis, following his trip to a National Governors Association meeting in Utah. He conveyed to the legislators from 15 states the same bad news he has been telling Tennesseans — that they should expect less money coming from Washington, even after a battle over the debt ceiling is worked out in the nation’s capital.

After his speech, Haslam met with reporters and answered questions about the school choice issue, which was discussed at the convention.

Tennessee’s Senate passed a bill this year, sponsored by Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, that would allow low-income students to accept “scholarships” to attend a school of their choice, public, charter or private, in their district. The plan would apply to the state’s four largest cities — Memphis, Nashville, Knoxville and Chattanooga. A similar bill in the House was put off for further discussion.

“The commitment we’ve made this summer is to bring together a group of people to have discussions on the pros and cons about vouchers, to look at the experience in other states before we decide what approach we will take with the legislative session next year,” Haslam said.

The governor said he is still putting the group together that will have those discussions.

“What I asked our policy people to do is intentionally go out and look for people on both sides of that issue and bring in some folks who have real experience in the places where vouchers have been in place,” Haslam said.

Haslam told the group of lawmakers that even though they may have weathered some hard times with their budgets, there is another reason for caution on the horizon, and that is the likelihood of less money for states coming from Washington.

Referring to the stalemate over the debt ceiling, Haslam said no matter how that comes out, he guaranteed legislators they will see less federal funds come their way.

“It’s going to make our job all the more difficult,” he said. “It’s all the more important that we focus on the right way to govern.”

Haslam told the group he knew the most talked-about issue in their districts is jobs. He said it is an “incredibly competitive world” for jobs, albeit that the legislators were meeting in the spirit of cooperation.

But he told them they are not just competing with each other but with countries around the world. He said the kinds of jobs that have been lost to automation and technology won’t be coming back and that because of that states must create an environment where businesses feel comfortable risking capital.

He said many people feel burned by the recent recession and aren’t eager to take on much risk and that people lack confidence because they don’t know what is going to happen in Washington on budget policies.

“Our job is to do everything we can to face the challenge, to change that, and finally at the end of the day have people say that’s how good government can work. I think that’s our role as states,” he said.

Haslam hit the point again after his speech about making adjustments to the new landscape.

“We’ve gone through one period of adjustments. You’re getting ready to go through another one,” he said. “I think everybody understands, regardless of how this (debt battle) comes out, the federal budget will be cut. If you look at where all the money is sent to, states are one of the biggest recipients.”

Haslam said there was “pretty broad consensus” among the governors on that issue.