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.