TN school voucher report leaves key areas open to debate

9:36 AM, Nov 30, 2012   |    comments
Gov. Bill Haslam/ GEORGE WALKER IV / FILE / THE TENNESSEAN
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By Joey Garrison, The Tennessean

A much-anticipated report Gov. Bill Haslam requested on a potential school voucher program for Tennessee has left key areas open to debate, including recognizing a "range of opinions" on the scholarship's funding mechanism.

Filling in the gaps will be the Republican-controlled state legislature, which is expected to consider a voucher proposal during the next session, one year after a version stalled. To advance "school choice," some Republicans are pushing for a voucher program that would allow students to use public dollars to attend private schools.

Haslam's voucher task force, a nine-member panel of educators and Republican lawmakers assembled last year, handed a 94-page final report to the governor Thursday that found a "consensus" that private schools should accept vouchers "in full" and not require additional dollars to make up for full tuition cost.

The panel, however, didn't recommend a dollar value for the voucher.

Some task force members have argued funding should be limited to the state and local school district's share of education dollars, while others have said additional municipal dollars should follow the student.

State Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, a task force member who sponsored last year's stalled legislation, has advocated for a funding formula identical to the way privately led, publicly financed charter schools are funded in Tennessee.

"We should not reinvent the wheel," Kelsey has said, referring to a combination of local and state dollars that would differ for each school district.

Under this scenario, the voucher amount would be $8,100 in Davidson County, significantly larger than the $5,400 outlined in Kelsey's previous bill.

The task force has found consensus on some items; most notably, that low-income students be the primary focus of a program. A voucher program therefore wouldn't have universal eligibility. However, whether eligible low-income students would come from only the lowest-performing schools in the state is still unclear.

To ensure accountability, panel members also agreed that participating private schools be held to academic standards and be screened on the front end. In addition, the group said any voucher program should be reviewed for its academic results before it might be expanded.

The new report cites using vouchers to attend other public schools as a possibility as well, including expanding choice to enable students to enroll in public schools outside their zoned districts and counties.

While many educators are eyeing a new voucher program in Tennessee, many local school districts are opposed to the move. In Nashville, Mayor Karl Dean said he is uneasy about a voucher program.

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