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Education Featured NewsTracker

Dunn: Vouchers Not Dead, Just Delayed

School-voucher legislation passed the Senate Finance Committee on a 9-2 vote Tuesday morning, but was “taken off notice” in the House Education Administration and Planning Committee later in the day.

But that shouldn’t be taken as an indication that he’s getting cold feet, the House measure’s sponsor, Knoxville Republican Bill Dunn, told TNReport.

“Don’t read anything into that,” Dunn said.

Several education committee members were absent from Legislative Plaza who want to weigh in on the issue, and Dunn said he desires that the legislation get a robust hearing and full committee vote.

Dunn said he took the bill off notice instead of “rolling it” because House rules tend to discourage simply delaying the vote on a bill multiple times if it is otherwise “on notice” for a committee hearing. Taking a measure off notice and later calling it up again translates to a smoother parliamentary maneuver, said Dunn, who also chairs the committee that schedules bills for votes on the full House floor.

Dunn said he intends to press ahead with his voucher or “opportunity scholarships” bill in the education committee next week.

The Tennessee House Democratic Caucus, however, issued a press release Tuesday indicating they see the voucher bill’s “failure…to advance” as a hopeful sign that it’s floundering, or maybe even dead in the water.

Similar legislation authorizing vouchers passed the Senate last year, but failed in the House.

The legislation, HB1049/SB0999, would grant opportunity scholarships to low income students in schools districts with a school in the bottom 5 percent of statewide education institutions.

Those voting for the Senate’s measure — sponsored by Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga — in the Finance Committee were Steven Dickerson, R-Nashville, Ferrell Haile, R-Gallatin, Joey Hensley, R-Hohenwald, Bill Ketron, R-Murfreesboro, Mark Norris, R-Collierville, John Stevens, R-Huntingdon, Reginald Tate, D-Memphis, Bo Watson, R-Hixson, and Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge.

Sens. Thelma Harper, D-Nashville and Doug Overbey, R-Maryville, voted the voucher bill.

Alex Harris can be contacted at alex@tnreport.com.

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Education Featured NewsTracker

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.

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Press Releases

Senate Education Cmte. Approves Kelsey’s Voucher Bill

Press release from the Tennessee Senate Republican Caucus; February 11, 2015:

NASHVILLE – The Senate Education Committee today approved legislation sponsored by Senator Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown) calling for Opportunity Scholarships for students eligible for free and reduced lunch within districts containing a school in the bottom five percent of academic achievement.   The “Tennessee Choice and Opportunity Scholarship Act” mirrors legislation proposed by Governor Bill Haslam last year that was passed by the Senate but stalled in the House.

“Equal Opportunity Scholarships provide impoverished children with hope for a better education and choice in the school they attend,” said Senator Brian Kelsey.  “Children should not be forced to attend a failing school just because they live in a certain neighborhood.”

Under Senate Bill 122, approximately $6,500 of the scholarships would be offered to low-income students to attend the school of their parents’ choice. The scholarship program would be capped at 5,000 students in year one, 7,500 in year two, 10,000 in year three, and 20,000 in year four and thereafter.   If those caps are not reached each year, scholarships would be offered to other low-income children in those counties in which a school in the bottom 5 percent of schools is located.

“This is an idea whose time has come,” added Kelsey, who first introduced the idea in the Tennessee legislature ten years ago.  “The parents of these children deserve more choices, and their children deserve more options to receive a quality education.”

The bill is sponsored by House Education Administration and Planning Committee Chairman Harry Brooks (R-Knoxville) in the House of Representatives.

Senator Kelsey represents Cordova, East Memphis, and Germantown.  He serves as a member of the Senate Education Committee and as Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

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Press Releases

Kelsey Files Bill to Offer ‘Opportunity Scholarships’ with a Local Control Provision

Press release from the Tennessee Senate Republican Caucus; January 16, 2015:

(NASHVILLE, Tenn.), January 16, 2015  – State Senator Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown), filed legislation yesterday afternoon to create Opportunity Scholarships with a new “Local Control” provision. Senate Bill 122 mirrors Gov. Haslam’s “Tennessee Choice and Opportunity Scholarship Act” that passed the Senate last year with the addition of a new “Local Control” provision.

“All children deserve the chance for a quality education,” said Sen. Kelsey.  “This bill will focus on low-income children but will give local school boards more control in how to best design the scholarships for their students.”

As in the governor’s bill, Opportunity Scholarships of roughly $6,500 would be offered to low-income students to attend the school of their parents’ choice. The scholarships would be offered to all students eligible for free and reduced price lunch in schools performing in the bottom 5% of schools in the state. Free and reduced price lunch is offered to families making up to $44,000 annually for a family of four.

The scholarship program would be capped at 5,000 students in year one, 7,500 in year two, 10,000 in year three, and 20,000 in year four and thereafter.   If those caps are not reached each year, scholarships would be offered to other low-income children in those counties in which a school in the bottom 5% of schools is located.

The new local control provision would allow any local school board and county commission to opt into the program if it wants to. Local control would include the option to waive the low-income requirement. The “Local Control” provision could help residents in fast-growing counties save millions in property taxes. Rather than building a new $25 million school every two years, counties could instead send some new students into the Opportunity Scholarship program. A recent study by the Friedman Foundation estimates the bill could save Williamson County $319 million over the next five years and prevent a potential property tax rate hike of 6 to 7%.

“This is an idea whose time has come,” added Kelsey, who first introduced the idea in the Tennessee legislature ten years ago.

Last year, the bill passed the Senate as well as the House Education Committee before getting stuck in the House Finance Committee. New committee assignments for the next two years will be announced in the General Assembly tomorrow.

Senator Kelsey represents Cordova, East Memphis, and Germantown.  He served as a member of the Senate Education Committee and as Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee during the last General Assembly.

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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.

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Education Featured News Tax and Budget

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.