NASHVILLE -- Republican Gov. Bill Haslam on Thursday named a task force to study and make recommendations regarding use of taxpayer-funded school vouchers that would let students attend private and religious schools.
The move comes amid efforts by Senate Republicans and some House Republicans to revive their voucher bill -- which they call "opportunity scholarships" -- during the legislative session that starts Jan. 10.
But Haslam said more time is needed to study the issue and see how vouchers fit into education reforms he championed in the last session. His task force would not make its recommendations until fall 2012 -- after the General Assembly adjourns for the year.
The Tennessee School Board Association voted last month at its winter meeting to oppose the voucher bill.
In an interview prior to the vote, Hamilton County Board of Education Chairman Mike Evatt said, "I never have been in favor of vouchers much."
Last session's version passed the Senate but stalled in the House. Both chambers have Republican majorities.
The bill would have created vouchers that low-income parents could use to send their children to private or religious schools in Hamilton, Knox, Davidson and Shelby counties, which operate the state's biggest school systems. Half their state and local tax dollars would follow the child. All four systems oppose it.
Earlier in the day before Haslam's announcement, Republican Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey of Blountville told reporters, "I want to see a form of it pass."
He said parents with children in a failing school should have an "opportunity scholarship" to go elsewhere.
"Now," Ramsey said, "why should a parent -- a good single mother that has this child who she wants to do better in life -- be trapped in that school where she knows every one of her teachers are 1s [lowest evaluation], while somebody who lives somewhere else has the opportunity to send theirs somewhere else? And that is just wrong."
He said he backs the vouchers "on a limited basis ... to see how this works."
While the original proposal, sponsored by Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, and Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, applied to all students eligible for free and reduced-price lunch programs, Ramsey wanted to limit it to failing schools.
In his announcement, Haslam said he supports "school choice options" and believes the vouchers could "be an impactful tool in Tennessee. We should offer alternatives to low-income students and their parents who may feel stuck in failing schools. Charter schools have been a significant part of process, and it is appropriate to explore additional opportunities."
But, Haslam, who successfully championed major expansions of public charter schools last session, noted that with regard to vouchers, "there is still work to be done ... in identifying what an opportunity scholarship program should look like here, and I think those discussions need to happen before legislation is pursued any further in this session."
"First and foremost, any new program must complement our ongoing efforts to reform education," Haslam said.
Following Haslam's announcement, Ramsey issued a statement, saying, "I believe firmly that opportunity scholarships are a fantastic idea and was pleased last session when the Senate passed [Kelsey's] original legislation.
"I'm excited that the governor is taking the initiative to study this, and I hope that this will be the beginning of a short journey towards passing this legislation through both chambers in the next General Assembly," said Ramsey, whose office appears to have been briefed Wednesday by Haslam officials.
Dunn, the bill's House sponsor, said Haslam's office notified him Thursday morning.
"While I would rather have something sooner than later, I think it's a great step in that the governor wants to get it right," said Dunn, who didn't rule out trying to move the bill.
He said he would talk to Education Committee members to see how they want to proceed.
"But obviously if the governor is getting involved to make sure we have the best policy available, I think that's very positive movement," Dunn said.
House Republican leaders, including House Speaker Beth Harwell, of Nashville, have expressed reservations about vouchers given the major education changes enacted over the past two years.
Hamilton school board Chairman Evatt said that while he knows "a lot of people" support vouchers, the impact on local schools would be problematic.
The plan would not take students in "perfect little groups" of 20 out of a particular school's classroom, Evatt said. Instead, schools would be grappling with scattered effects across classrooms and schools, he said, making it difficult to shift teachers to deal with the situation.
Moreover, Evatt said, "I feel like we're funding a private education with local money. That's why private schools are private. Parents choose to send their kids to a private school."
Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...