Gov. Bill Haslam’s first major piece of education legislation is a bill to establish a limited school voucher program in Tennessee. Not surprisingly, the measure is receiving pushback from the usual suspects here and in Nashville.
The Tennessee Choice & Opportunity Scholarship Act would provide eligible students (those who qualify for free or reduced lunch and those attending a school that is in the bottom 5 percent in academic achievement) with a scholarship to attend a private school of their choice. Critics say the bill is just another component of the school privatization agenda outlined by the American Legislative Exchange Council.
ALEC, in case you haven’t heard, is an ultra-conservative organization (funded by the wealthy Koch brothers) that brings together state lawmakers and corporations to draft model legislation to be introduced in statehouses all across the country.
Last year, the Tennessee General Assembly passed an ALEC-inspired bill to end collective bargaining for teachers. The measure ended the Tennessee Education Association’s power to negotiate teacher contracts with local school boards and it punished the TEA for endorsing labor-friendly Democrats for state offices.
Now, the Republican governor and the GOP-led state General Assembly is looking to divert already limited state and local tax dollars away from public education to private schools. Haslam’s voucher plan is seeing opposition from teachers, school boards and Democrats.
And the governor’s bill is not getting any love from state Rep. Matthew Hill, R-Jonesborough. Boss Hill has vowed to stand with the school boards of Johnson City and Washington County, which aren’t keen on the idea of losing precious tax dollars to private schools.
Even so, Hill is not necessarily philosophically opposed to school vouchers. Hill says he is opposed to the governor’s bill because it is aimed squarely at failing schools in urban areas (Memphis and Nashville) and not the better academically performing school systems in our area.
Freshman state Rep. Micah Van Huss, R-Jonesborough, agrees with Hill on this matter.
“I think vouchers are a good idea, but it’s hard to say what the details of the legislation will be,” Van Huss told Press staff writer Gary B. Gray earlier this month.
Actually, it’s not. The governor’s bill is pretty specific when it comes to the particulars of the proposed voucher system.
So what’s really going on here? Why do Hill and Van Huss (and we suspect Hill’s brother, Timothy, too) appear to be solid votes against Haslam’s voucher bill? Some Capitol Hill insiders believe it’s Hill’s way of exacting some revenge for Haslam’s overhaul of the Tennessee Regulatory Authority.
Last year, the governor passed a bill that stripped his father, Kenneth Hill, of his full-time paid ($152,400 annually, plus benefits) position on that board and made members of the TRA part-time directors earning $36,000 a year.
Boss Hill, of course, vehemently opposed the governor’s reform of the TRA and was one of just 11 votes in the House (most of the others coming from Democrats) against the bill.
Robert Houk is Opinion page editor for the Johnson City Press. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.