published Monday, November 14th, 2011

Tennessee legislators gear up for battle over school voucher programs

Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey speaks to reporters in his office in Nashville, Tenn., on Tuesday, March 22, 2011. (AP Photo/Erik Schelzig)
Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey speaks to reporters in his office in Nashville, Tenn., on Tuesday, March 22, 2011. (AP Photo/Erik Schelzig)

SCHOOL CHANGES


Tennessee, with some of the nation's worst student achievement scores, has enacted ambitious reforms that helped win a $500 million federal Race to the Top grant and put the state on the national stage. They include:

• Tougher teacher tenure laws

• More-rigorous curriculum

• New teacher evaluation system

• Putting consistently failing schools in a special district

• Abolishing collective bargaining

• Expanding charter schools

Source: Tennessee Legislature

Poll
Should the state give low-income students vouchers to attend private schools?

NASHVILLE -- Tennessee's House and Senate Republican leaders could be at odds next year over legislation requiring school voucher programs in Hamilton County and Tennessee's three other largest school systems.

Republican Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey says he is fired up about new legislation that retools a bill to let children from lower-income families use taxpayer dollars to attend private and religious schools.

"Something I am big on is starting at least a pilot project for school choice here in Tennessee," said Ramsey, the Senate speaker, who calls vouchers "educational scholarships."

"If you have children trapped in failing schools and their parents don't have the means to allow them to go to an alternative, then we need to start with a small pilot project [in the four largest systems] ... and be able to allow those students to have some choice," Ramsey said.

Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, last month introduced a revamped version of his voucher bill, the Equal Opportunity Scholarship Act.

The bill requires Hamilton, Knox, Davidson and Shelby County schools to offer vouchers to students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch programs because of family income -- $42,000 for a family of four -- or who attend failing schools.

Each voucher would be worth 50 percent of per-pupil funding in local school systems. That comes to $4,600 in Hamilton County schools, which critics say doesn't cover the cost of many private schools.

The bill requires private and religious schools that accept voucher students to administer Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program tests in grades 3-8 and end-of-high-school exams. Teachers in those schools would not be subject to the state teacher evaluations.

Hamilton County school board members last month voted 7-1 to oppose the voucher program.

Capitol Concerns

Similar legislation passed the Senate early this year but stalled in the GOP-dominated House. Concerns and opposition came from Republican and Democratic lawmakers, large school systems and the Tennessee Education Association, among others.

Republican House Speaker Beth Harwell is less enthusiastic than Ramsey about the revamped bill.

While not ruling it out in 2012, Harwell said, "If we're going to proceed, we need to be very careful; there are a lot of questions."

She said lawmakers this year "put a lot of additional work" on public school teachers with a new evaluation process.

Letting students "go into a private system where those teachers don't have to have those same systems, I think it's sending a mixed message to our teachers," Harwell said.

"We have a lot to do in public education yet, and I'd like to stay focused on what we're doing in our public schools," Harwell said.

She noted that lawmakers this year passed an "excellent public charter school bill" that she believes is "more of the answers to our public school needs."

House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, also sounded cautious. Echoing Harwell, McCormick said the state has made major changes in education recently.

"We need to go carefully and not get in a hurry based on political pressures to make more changes," he said.

Lawmakers should "certainly consider this voucher program, but I for one am in no hurry to implement it next year," McCormick added.

Haslam Holds Back

Senate Speaker Pro Tempore Bo Watson, R-Hixson, voted for the earlier voucher bill and supports the new version.

"My fundamental question is, if people are locked into a failing school only because they're low income and every other economic strata has a choice ... why would we not allow them to make that choice?" he asked.

He acknowledged arguments that the state should let the new changes "percolate."

Republican Gov. Bill Haslam has said he's still weighing the voucher proposal.

Speaking to the Nashville Rotary Club last week, Haslam said he believes vouchers will be "one of the most contentious issues" when state lawmakers come back into session in January.

It is "incumbent upon us to at least do our homework and see how would the voucher system affect existing systems," Haslam said.

Any decision he makes is bound to upset a powerful block of GOP lawmakers. Last year, he chose to focus on teacher tenure and charter schools.

The governor said he expects to make a decision by the end of the year.

about Andy Sher...

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, ...

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chattcitizen said...

I'll be more than glad to give out vouchers as soon as the state gives me a discount on my state tax return for paying for public schooling when my kids never attended a day of public school.

November 14, 2011 at 10:38 a.m.
lkeithlu said...

The bill requires private and religious schools that accept voucher students to administer Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program tests in grades 3-8 and end-of-high-school exams.

The whole point of a private school is to have the freedom to choose not to use these terrible exams. I don't think private schools are going to be willing to accept vouchers if the state says they must administer those exams.

November 14, 2011 at 11:41 a.m.
EaTn said...

Is our legislation saying they would rather provide money to support private schools for a few students rather than spend the time and money to identify and fix the public schools for most of the state students?

November 14, 2011 at 11:49 a.m.

I don't think the problems with these troubled schools can be fixed by spending more money or time on the schools. I believe the true root of the problem lies with the parents of the children. Few of them are involved in their child's education or even care to be involved. Without the parent's involvement and support, the schools cannot be fixed.

November 14, 2011 at 1:52 p.m.
Astropig said...

"Is our legislation saying they would rather provide money to support private schools for a few students rather than spend the time and money to identify and fix the public schools for most of the state students?"

No, they are not. They are basically admitting that the public schools can't be fixed no matter how much money we throw at them. This looks like a good investment to me. It gives kids that might become a drag on society (jails, welfare,food stamps,assorted social costs) a shot at becoming productive,tax paying citizens. The reason that the education plantation is opposed is that when these lower income parents realize what they have been missing,another pillar in the education monopoly/racket will be torn asunder. In other states,parents are being jailed for sneaking their kids out of failing schools and enrolling them in successful schools.Passing this might just avoid putting a mother of three behind bars to enforce the school mafia's territory.

November 14, 2011 at 4:03 p.m.
tipper said...

If you want to give taxpayer money to private and religious schools and reduce those funds supporting public schools, I think a statewide referendum is a must. Both private and religious schools have more options to obtain funds. They can increase tuition, hire professionnal fundraisers, or ask parents to contribute to a fund.

Private and religious schools also have the freedom to select specific students. What would those reuirements be? Can those schools scim off those with more potential for success and cast aside others?

Vouchers are a slippery slope at best. I agree with one poster that it is parenting that needs to be more closely studied rather than throwing money at the public school problem. And not mandating teacher evaluations for voucher-receiving schools makes absoultely no sense at all. I am sure you will find low-performing teachers in the private and parochial school ranks as well.

Politicians need to get out of the education business. What you are seeing now is a movement to privatize public schools that provide campaign dollars to elected officials and more political influence for private, religious, and charter schools. I find that most politicians are not experts in education. They seem to fear educators actually trying to improve education. Education, like health care, doesn't work well on a bottom-line profit and loss model.

November 14, 2011 at 6:18 p.m.
Astropig said...

"Can those schools scim off those with more potential for success and cast aside others?"

The kids that will be served by this program will be the ones that wouldn't be "scimmed" (skimmed) under the current setup. These kids are the ones cast aside. This just gives them an honest shot at the same education that the ones with "more potential" get.

"Politicians need to get out of the education business"

Amen. Make it illegal (with real jail time) for them to accept campaign $$ from the same teachers unions that are blocking real reform.

Let's stop standing in the schoolhouse door and let some of these less well off kids enjoy the same education that politicians kids get.

November 14, 2011 at 6:47 p.m.
lkeithlu said...

I don't think you'll get very many independent schools to allow the state to dictate enrollment requirements, testing and teacher evaluation. That's why they are independent schools. $4k a year is only about 1/5 the tuition and fees for the better private schools, and families have to provide their own books and transportation. I can't imagine that there are very many schools willing to jump through state hoops for such a small amount, and the families that this targets cannot afford to pony up the rest. Although I agree that students deserve the chance to escape failing schools, I don't think this is a viable option.

November 14, 2011 at 7:11 p.m.
Sane_n_RedState said...

The push for private school vouchers in Tennessee is the latest episode in a three-decade effort to undermine the great American institution of public education.

It began in 1983 with “A Nation at Risk,” a report by a presidential commission that cited shortcomings with the nation’s schools. Education Secretary Terrel Bell seized on the report to launch a campaign to strengthen public education. But antigovernment allies of the Reagan administration used the report--and a book by free-market purist Milton Friedman that labeled “government schools” as “socialism”--to call for competitive, private school alternatives. They ousted Bell and replaced him with William Bennett, a voucher advocate. Thereafter in major speeches, President Reagan repeatedly called for vouchers for private schools, mainly church schools--and prayer in public schools.

Faced with taxpayer resistance to vouchers, proponents attempted to rebrand them as “opportunity scholarships.” Lamar Alexander, as U.S. education secretary, never uttered “vouchers” but, instead, proposed a “G.I. Bill for Kids” that would pay private school tuition.

In 2001 the Bush administration concocted a scheme to set up public schools for failure by setting unattainable goals, and then to offer vouchers to parents with children in “failing” schools. They called it “No Child Left Behind.” Congress approved NCLB, minus vouchers.

Now with a decade of NCLB-maligned public schools, a core of right-wing state lawmakers is calling for “school choice” at taxpayers’ expense.

November 14, 2011 at 7:21 p.m.
Astropig said...

"The push for private school vouchers in Tennessee is the latest episode in a three-decade effort to undermine the great American institution of public education. "

Because we all know that public education is a shining example of how a hidebound ,unionized bureaucracy accountable largely to itself sets the standard of the world in education.

They're scared,folks. Now is not the time to flag or fail. Now is the time to redouble our efforts to improve our schools (yes, the schools belong to the taxpayers,not the education establishment). The education mafia has had a century and untold billions to build a system that works. They won't clean their own house, so we must clean it for them.

November 14, 2011 at 9:50 p.m.
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