published Thursday, March 27th, 2014

Gov. Bill Haslam: 'Ways to go' on Tennessee school voucher consensus

  • photo
    Gov. Bill Haslam speaks at a Tennessee Chamber of Commerce luncheon in Nashville on Tuesday, March 25, 2014.
    Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

NASHVILLE — Gov. Bill Haslam said Thursday that lawmakers still have a "ways to go" in reaching a consensus on his school voucher legislation, particularly in the House where the proposal has stalled.

But the Republican governor told reporters after speaking at a higher education event organized by the Tennessee Business Roundtable that he's optimistic a measured approach to his proposal will prevail.

"I think at the end of the day we want to get something done," he said. "We're having ... discussions now."

Vouchers — or so-called "opportunity scholarships" — give parents the option to move a child from a failing public school to a private school, with the state providing funds for tuition.

Haslam originally sought to limit the vouchers to students from low-income families attending the bottom 5 percent of failing schools.

Under a new version that passed the Senate Education Committee on Wednesday, if there are not enough students for the available slots, then eligibility would be opened to low-income students in districts that have a school in the bottom 5 percent.

The companion bill — which has stalled in the House Education Committee — would expand eligibility to the bottom 10 percent of failing schools if slots are left.

Last year, the governor pulled his proposal after attempts to drastically expand it, an idea that apparently is not sitting too well with some House members.

"We still have a ways to go in the House to work it all out," Haslam acknowledged.

The governor describes his legislation this year as more of a limited — or measured — approach.

"One of the reasons we proposed the kind of limited approach is I want to put something into practice to see what the effect is," he said. "Let's take a measured approach to get some experience."

Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey told reporters later Thursday that votes to pass the proposal in the House Education Committee might be scarce, and that the House speaker could break a tie if there is one.

"But at this point, I don't even think it's a tie," said the Blountville Republican.

Critics of vouchers say more funds should be given to public school systems to educate students rather than private schools.

"There's this idea somehow that private is better," said Jim Wrye, chief lobbyist for the Tennessee Education Association, the state's largest teachers union.

"And quite frankly, there's a lot of research out there now that the rigor of public schools is much higher than private schools. I think the members of the General Assembly are right to be hesitant."

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