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.