Lawmakers weigh in on vouchers

Gary B. Gray • Feb 1, 2013 at 9:17 PM

Gov. Bill Haslam didn’t surprise anyone Monday night during his State of the State address when it came to school vouchers. He has pushed for a limited education voucher bill in the Legislature this year that would apply to low-income students in Tennessee’s worst-performing schools, and he stayed that course during his speech.

Haslam said he’d heard the argument that a voucher system would drain resources in schools that need them most. But that argument is met with the fact that the state has committed $38 million over three years to the 5 percent of schools ranked lowest in performance, and his proposed budget adds $9 million to that.

The bill, called the “Tennessee Choice & Opportunity Scholarship Act,” is sponsored by House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, and Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville, who carry the governor’s package of bills.

Enrollment would be limited in its first year to 5,000 students whose family income makes them eligible for free or reduced-price lunch programs. That would grow to 20,000 by the 2016-17 school year.

In sum, he said the low-income approach is not all-encompassing but limited, though it gives parents and students a choice. But state Rep. Micah Van Huss, R-Jonesborough, said it’s a program basically being implemented to serve Memphis and other large cities.

“It’s very touchy,” he said. “It’s a very fragile subject. As a baseline, I think vouchers are a good idea. But it’s hard to say what the details of the legislation will be. I can say that I would not vote for something that’s going to harm Washington County schools.”

Rep. Kent Williams, I-Elizabethton, said the administration has been very quiet about what the voucher system would entail. He also agreed with Van Huss that the bill seems geared more toward larger metro areas.

“Our public school officials definitely are not for the voucher system,” Williams said. “I know in our rural communities, access to private schools is pretty difficult, and I don’t want to take anything away from our local public schools. When we see the legislation, we’ll be better informed to make decisions.”

Rep. Matthew Hill, who was not immediately available to comment on Haslam’s speech, was in the Washington County Commission’s chambers Monday. He reassured commissioners that he would stand by the Boards of Education of Washington County and Johnson City, both of which are strongly against vouchers.

Depending on the source and the syntax, the use of vouchers can be made to appear as either a blessing or a horror. Vouchers would “allow students to attend religious and other private schools at taxpayer expense,” the Chattanooga Time Free Press cites in a recent story.

Sounds harmful, right?

“Anything that will tap into the same funding program that we have for education currently, I am opposed to it,” Rep. JoAnne Favors, D-Chattanooga, said in the article.

But taxpayers already dole out tax money to support public schools. If vouchers are allowed, some of this money would be reserved for scholarships to private schools. In Ohio, vouchers are more popular than ever — for the second year in a row, there were more applicants for vouchers than were available, according to an article this month in the U.S. News & World Report.

Proponents of voucher programs say that putting private and public schools in direct competition encourages public schools to improve and operate with greater efficiency — a savings for states in a budget crisis.

Meanwhile, the Tennessee Education Association, the state’s largest organization of educators, vehemently opposes vouchers. TEA President Gera Summerford said teachers have a lot of concerns about diverting funds away from the public schools.

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