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Education Featured

Vote of Confidence for Huffman from Haslam

Gov. Bill Haslam expressed his continued confidence in Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman Monday, telling reporters, “If I was going to hire an education commissioner again today, I would hire Kevin Huffman.”

“If you look at the state’s who are making the most progress in education, Tennessee is at the top of that list and Kevin gets a lot of credit for that,” Haslam continued.

Huffman has faced recent criticism, primarily from teachers’ groups and state Democrats, after his department successfully pushed an overhaul of the state’s public school teacher pay system through a Board of Education vote last month. As The Tennessean reported recently, the policy change has prompted opponents to call for Huffman’s ouster via Facebook and online petitioning.

While Haslam’s education agenda has received positive feedback from federal officials in the past — both in the form of funding from the Obama administration’s Race to the Top program as well as praise from Education Secretary Arne Duncan — push-back has come from various quarters on the state level, especially around the increasing presence of charter schools and the coming implementation of national Common Core standards in state classrooms.

But Monday, Haslam mostly shrugged off criticism. “The work we’re doing is hard. We’re saying we’re not satisfied being in the 40’s [in state rankings] when it comes to education,” said the governor. “We’re making those changes that I think will move us forward.”

And according to a related report today from The New Republic, Haslam’s and Huffman’s work has found a strong supporter in Huffman’s ex-wife, firebrand education reform activist and former D.C. school superintendent Michelle Rhee whose lobbying group, the magazine writes, has been giving Tennessee special attention and sizable cash injections in local elections.

Unionized teachers and minority-party Democrats in the Legislature have been complaining bitterly of late about a new teacher-salary plan approved by the state Board of Education last month. The plan, which goes into effect for new hires beginning in the upcoming school year, gives local school districts latitude to determine payment scales for teachers.

Some teachers and Democrats fear the move will will ultimately over time make teaching a less attractive field to young college grads. Huffman and the plan’s supporters, however, argue that it will in fact encourage higher-caliber prospects to apply.

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Education Featured NewsTracker

Haslam Defends Common Core

With pressure from some Tennessee conservatives mounting against Common Core school standards, Gov. Bill Haslam says he is standing strong in his decision to implement them in the state.

During a press conference Tuesday, Haslam told reporters that he believes joining 44 other states and the District of Columbia in adopting the federal classroom benchmarks will help Tennessee stay economically competitive.

“I feel strongly in this sense: Common Core is about raising the standards and defining the standards so that everybody knows what a third grader should be able to do in math or an eighth grader,” said the Republican governor.

“The most common thing I hear — I’ve talked to five different businesses, literally, in the last week and every one of the them is saying the same thing: ‘We love being here but the prepared workforce that we need is lacking,” Haslam continued. “And that doesn’t just start when you get out of school, it obviously starts earlier and I think part of that is we make certain our third graders are learning the math they need to so that ten years from now these companies aren’t saying ‘we don’t have the workforce that we need.’”

But the new standards, which include various grade-level expectations in math and English, have drawn fierce opposition from some parents and conservative activists in the state. And some high-visibility Republican politicians are increasingly turning their backs on the proposed changes.

Last week, U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais from Tennessee’s 4th Congressional District voiced full-throated disapproval of Common Core implementation. A press release from DesJarlais’s office called the standards “watered down” and “bad policy, implemented unfairly, that achieves mediocrity at the expense of states’ sovereignty and local control.”

There have also been murmurings of disapproval amongst conservative legislators on the state level, too.

Reached by phone Tuesday, state House GOP Caucus Chair Glen Casada told TNReport that many of his members have expressed concern and have “a lot of questions.”

The Franklin lawmaker said it’s too early to comment on specific measures the General Assembly might take next year, but indicated he’s looking for the Haslam administration to provide empirical data that Common Core standards will be beneficial for students and not “just another fad that’s come down the pike.”

Concerns and questions aside, the governor appears to be moving forward with the implementations process. According to a Department of Education press release from June 18, the administration is launching a large-scale, voluntary teacher training program on the new standards and over 32,000 state teachers have signed up.

The release quotes Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman, a Haslam appointee, saying, “The scale of this training marks an unprecedented commitment to equip students with the critical thinking skills necessary to compete. We are dedicated to giving our teachers the support they need to drive toward excellence during this transition.”

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Education Featured NewsTracker

State Ed Board Votes to Overhaul Teacher Pay System

The Tennessee State Board of Education voted Friday to overhaul the state’s minimum payment requirements for public school teachers.

The new payment plan, presented to the board by Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman and passed by a vote of 6-3, includes a 1.5 percent across-the-board increase to teachers’ minimum salaries, but opponents argue that changes to the pay schedule structure will end up severely limiting teachers’ earning potential over the course of their entire careers.

Under the current system, teachers receive up to 20 small salary bumps during their careers as they gain seniority and can also move up pay brackets for completing advanced degrees and training. The new system reduces the schedule to just a few different categories, leaving it largely up to local districts to decide how raises are awarded.

The board passed the plan over the public objections of Tennessee’s major teachers’ union along with many Democrats in the State Legislature. At the center of the debate is the way teacher pay categories are divided. During the SBOE meeting Friday, Commissioner Huffman and members of his staff laid out the details of their proposal while several dozen union members with the Tennessee Education Association packed the conference room to show their opposition.

Tennessee Education Association Vice President Barbara Gray was allowed to address the state board on their behalf and called on SBOE members to postpone action on the Department of Education plan.

While ostensibly an opportunity to debate and possibly modify the proposal, discussion was kept minimal.

Gray contended that the current minimum pay schedule was set up to “foster equity in teacher salaries among school districts and to provide professional pay for hard-working educators.”

“The overall effect of the changes proposed,” Gray told the board “is a substantial lowering of the state requirement for teacher salary,” a point that Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman directly contradicted.

“Tennessee law forbids any district from cutting an individual teacher’s salary; it’s actually not allowable for a district to cut an individual teacher’s salary,” Huffman said. “Salaries will not go down,” he continued “I don’t understand how to be more clear about that.”

Huffman and board chairman Fielding Rolston, a vocal supporter of the alterations, repeatedly dismissed the assertion that lifetime earnings might decline under the new plan  — drawing boos and whispers from TEA union members — and suggested that arguments otherwise were deliberate distortions of the truth.

In his opening remarks, Huffman said he was “disappointed to see a lot of misinformation about the salary proposal,” while Rolston was less reserved, telling fellow board members “It’s extremely unfortunate that some of the misleading information, the inflammatory information that has been distributed is out there because I think it has led to a lot of anxiety on the part of teachers that is totally inappropriate.”

In a seemingly conciliatory gesture that proved little consolation for opponents, the board ultimately chose to include non-binding language to the proposal they voted on saying the new system could be re-evaluated in the future if the results were negative.

The changes to the teacher pay schedule come as an example of the larger push by GOP education reform advocates, including many in the Haslam administration and the General Assembly, to increased local district control and emphasize teacher performance over experience or advanced training.

Speaking to reporters following Friday’s meeting, Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman stressed both points.

“For too long in education, we have operated with the presumption that everybody performs at the same level, everybody is the same, there is no marketplace for people. Those are fallacies. Some teachers perform at a higher level than others,” Huffman said.

“Some folks would like to see a system continue that says ‘we’re going to treat you all the same no matter any of the other factors, we’re going to pay you exactly the same,’” the commissioner continued. “And we believe that school districts should be able to create systems that say ‘You know, not everybody’s the same. In our district, we have a challenge with X; we would like to fix X and use compensation as part of that.’”

The new minimum pay system is set to begin taking effect in the 2013-14 school year.

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Press Releases

TNHDC Opposes Huffman’s Proposed Salary Changes for Teachers

Press release from the Tennessee House Democratic Caucus; June 20, 2013:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – House Democrats joined together to speak out against a proposal by the Haslam administration to cut teacher pay in Tennessee.

“If we are ever going to raise Tennessee’s educational standards, we must make our state more attractive to highly qualified, professional teachers,” said Rep. Gloria Johnson (D-Knoxville). “Instead, Commissioner Huffman and the corporate special interests bankrolling the so-called ‘education reform’ movement have set their sights once again on attacking our public school teachers.”

Commissioner Huffman will present his proposed changes to the minimum teacher salary schedule to the State Board of Education on Friday, June 21. The new proposal will reduce steps in salary increases from 21 to four and eliminate incentives for doctorate degrees and post-masters training.

“Our teachers are this state’s greatest resource,” said House Democratic Leader Craig Fitzhugh. “Something this administration and self-proclaimed education reformers still fail to grasp is that putting teachers last will not put students first.”

“If this proposal goes forward, Governor Haslam will be breaking the state’s promise to thousands of teachers across the state,” said House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner. “Teachers have invested their precious time and money into obtaining further education with the promise that they would be adequately compensated. Now, teachers are going to be left with thousands in debt and a broken promise from the state.”

View the proposed schedule for teachers HERE.

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Press Releases

TN Pledges $4M in Race to the Top Funds for Leadership Development

Press release from the Tennessee Department of Education; May 6, 2013:

NASHVILLE — The Tennessee Department of Education has pledged nearly $4 million in Race to the Top funds to pay for eight leadership development programs, which will impact future school leaders in more than 20 districts across the state.

The TN LEAD grants were awarded to organizations in partnership with one or more school systems, to either develop or replicate programs aimed at increasing leader effectiveness and improving student outcomes. The programs will target current and pre-service educators, in order to deepen the pipeline of effective leaders in Tennessee schools.

A key requirement of the grant was to show evidence that the proposed programs were sustainable, said Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman.

“Training educators to be future leaders is one of the most important things we can do to ensure the sustainability of our work,” Huffman said. “Having effective principals and district leaders in place will make sure our efforts to improve education continue to pay off many years down the road.”

There were 20 applicants for the competitive TN LEAD grants. Eight recipients received funds, for a total of about $4 million. The programs target teachers who want to be principals, those who seek a teacher-leader role in their school, as well as district personnel who hope to serve in a school leadership position. The winners represent a wide range of innovative approaches, including university-based programs, a rural collaborative, and a multi-district partnership with top principals in China. The leadership development programs will begin this month and continue through July 2014.

Paul Fleming, the department’s executive director of leadership development, and former principal of Metro Nashville’s Hume-Fogg Academic Magnet High School, said that next to teachers, a highly effective leader is the number one factor that impacts student achievement at a school.

“Principals are the gatekeepers; they either encourage high-quality innovation, or they keep it out. They set the tone for the entire building,” he said. “With some of Tennessee’s important initiatives like the Common Core State Standards, there has never been a more important time to have effective leaders in place.”

Please see the attached document for more information about the eight TN LEAD grant recipients.

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Press Releases

TN Education Dept. Announces Common Core Leadership Council

Press release from the Tennessee Department of Education; February 13, 2013:

Following the success of Tennessee’s first Common Core Leadership Council, the department of education today announces a new group of principals, supervisors and superintendents who will give districts a voice in the statewide transition to the Common Core State Standards. The new Leadership Council will advise the department on the Common Core transition plan and directly lead and manage all aspects of the work, including a summer statewide training of more than 30,000 teachers.

“The success of our implementation of the Common Core State Standards will be directly related to our ability to engage a diverse group of Tennessee educators and stakeholders,” said Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman. “We’ve got one chance to get this right, and I’m grateful to our new Leadership Council for helping us make sure that we do.”

The 22 members of the Leadership Council come from all regions of the state, and will advise department officials on formal and informal assessments and professional development resources; shape the framework for all Common Core pilot programs; and become regional experts and leaders in the importance and concrete expectations of the standards. They also will inform training of more than 600 Core Coaches to provide statewide professional development for more than 30,000 teachers in grades K-12 math and literacy this summer.

Last year’s council successfully implemented the training of more than 10,000 educators on 3-8 math standards, and also created the template for the state’s Common Core Leadership Course for principals and assistant principals.

Lexington City Schools Superintendent Susie Bunch served on the first council, and will continue her work in 2013. She said the common thread between all council members is a profound belief in the Common Core State Standards and in the ability of Tennessee’s students and teachers to make a successful transition to them.

“Our council sessions yield rich discussions about teaching and learning and how both will shift as the state moves toward full implementation of the Common Core,” she said. “From these rich discussions, decisions leading to the next steps of this transition journey are made.”

2013-14 Common Core Leadership Council Members

Name
Position
District
CORE Region

Jerry Ayers
Director of Career and Technical Education
Greeneville City
First TN

Jared Bigham
Principal, Copper Basin High School
Polk County
Southeast

Jerry S. Boyd
Director of Schools
Putnam County
Upper Cumberland

Susie Bunch
Director of Schools
Lexington City
Southwest/Memphis

Sharon Cooksey
Curriculum & Professional Learning Specialist
Franklin Special School District
Mid-Cumberland

Linda Kennard
Executive Director, Curriculum & Instruction/ Pre-K-12 Literacy
Memphis City Schools
Southwest/Memphis

Vicki Kirk
Director of Schools
Greene County
First TN

Scott Langford
Assistant Principal, White House Middle School
Sumner County
Mid-Cumberland

Meghan Little
Chief Academic Officer
KIPP NashvilleSchools
Mid-Cumberland

Jared Myracle
Supervisor of Instruction
Gibson County
Northwest

Theresa Nixon
Science Supervisor
Knox County
East

Mike Novak
Principal, Liberty Elementary School
Bedford County
South Central

Jamie Parris
Director of Secondary Math & Science
Hamilton County
Southeast

Martin Ringstaff
Director of Schools
Cleveland City
Southeast

Clint Satterfield
Director of Schools
Trousdale County
Upper Cumberland

Millicent Smith
Executive Director, Curriculum, Instruction & Professional Development
Knox County
East

Jay Steele
Chief Academic Officer
Metro Nashville Public Schools
Mid-Cumberland

David Stephens
Chief of Staff
Shelby County
Southwest/Memphis

David Timbs
Assistant Superintendent
Sullivan County
First TN

Pennye Thurmond
Principal, Ripley Elementary School
Lauderdale County
Southwest/Memphis 

Amanda Hill Vance
Special Education Supervisor
Monroe County
East

Vicki Violette
Director of Schools
Clinton City
East

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Education Featured

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.

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Education Featured

Huffman Expects More Schools In State’s Achievement District

The state expects to add 10 or 12 schools next year to its specialized district aimed at helping schools that have fallen behind academically, Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman said during his department’s state budget hearing this week.

That would bring up to 18 schools operating under the umbrella of the Achievement School District, a state entity that has the power to take over failing schools. Like the schools already in the district, many of those additional schools will be in Memphis. Ten Memphis City schools, all in the bottom 5 percent of Tennessee schools in terms of achievement, were notified this week that they will be taken over by the district, the Commercial Appeal reported Wednesday.

Huffman said schools in the Achievement district are operating with longer days, teaching until 4:30 p.m., and using data more aggressively to drive instruction. Huffman discussed the progress so far.

“I think they feel positive about the direction that they’re going, but it’s hard work,” Huffman said. “And I think everybody who works for the (achievement district) understands the very long path they have to go, because their goal is not to have these schools simply be less bad. They want these schools to be good schools where people want to send their children.”

The district was approved by the Legislature in 2010 as part of the state’s successful efforts to win Race to the Top funding for education reform.

The state won $501 million in that contest sponsored by the Obama administration, and Haslam asked Huffman if education officials are planning for what happens after that money is spent. The deadline is in about 18 months, Huffman said.

“We know that we will have to figure out, there will be some ongoing costs that we’ll need to absorb and make room for those costs because it’s the right thing to do,” Huffman said of planning at the state level. Local districts will have to decide whether to continue funding positions like math coaches created under the Race to the Top initiatives.

“When the money runs out they either need to figure out that this is an ongoing priority that’s worth the investment and therefore they need to spend the money on it and not spend someplace else, or they need to transition out of it,” Huffman said.

Huffman has proposed a 2 percent increase in the state share of his department’s funding, from $4.1 billion in the current year to $4.2 billion in 2013-14, the Tennessean reported.

One of the factors driving that increase is a projected $45 million bump to spending for local schools, Huffman said, based on the state law that proscribes state funding for local schools based on inflation and enrollment.

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Education Featured

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.

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Education News NewsTracker

Haslam Expects Voucher Dialog in ’13 Regardless If He’s On Board

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.