Showdown over vouchers looms as some GOPers push for greater availability

Monday, March 11, 2013 at 12:18am
031113 Brian Kelsey main.jpg
Sen. Brian Kelsey (Andrea Zelinski/SouthComm)

After approving a handful of reforms to turn around the state’s struggling education system in recent years, Gov. Bill Haslam took his time deciding whether he’d propose adding another to the pile.

With a scant blueprint in hand from a panel that studied taxpayer-funded school vouchers last year, the governor pitched a plan to allow 5,000 low-income students from the state’s 83 worst schools to attend private school for nothing out of pocket.

The governor’s problem now is there’s a movement within his party’s ranks to go further than he is willing — laying the groundwork for a clash between the various factions of the GOP.

The idea is already unpopular among school boards, most state Democrats and a smattering of Republicans. But pro-voucher operatives in both chambers are plotting how they can go beyond the governor’s limited bill to make vouchers available to more students, likely those who belong to families with higher incomes.

“I just hope that it can serve as many children as possible and be a large enough bill that it could be a successful program,” said Sen. Brian Kelsey, a Germantown Republican who has championed the fight for school vouchers for years.

He is one of the few leading the pack for a more robust voucher system, despite insistence from Haslam to stick with a modest program, and reluctance from top leaders in the House of Representatives to step out of line with the governor.

Kelsey was tight-lipped on what his proposal would do, but another proposal circling the Capitol could allow students with families with up to $70,000 in annual income to attend private school for free, said Sen. Mark Norris, the upper chamber’s majority leader, who said he’s sticking with the governor’s version.

“There’s a lot of big talk, some loose talk about which program is more appealing. But there are also a number of legislators who don’t like any voucher program in the Senate, in my caucus,” he said.

“It seems to me if you want to embark on a new program, that any start is better than no start, and vouchers are controversial in the first instance. So those who want it all very quickly should probably be careful what they ask for. They may end up with nothing,” said Norris.

The crux of any voucher plan is to let parents take the taxpayer dollars now used to fund their child’s education in the public school system, and use it in place of full tuition at a private or parochial school of their choice. Fans of the plan argue that it gives parents more choice on where to send their child to school without changing neighborhoods, while opponents contend the program takes tax dollars and children with involved parents away from already cash-strapped and struggling public school districts.

As is, the governor’s plan would affect low-income students who qualify for free or reduced lunch from the worst 5 percent of schools in the state. That amounts to 35,000 eligible students, according to state officials, which includes those at a half-dozen Metro Nashville schools, a handful between Chattanooga and Knoxville and dozens in Memphis.

But the first year of the governor’s program would issue vouchers to a maximum of 5,000 students, less than 1 percent of the state’s 935,000 public school children.

Tension is beginning to simmer in the legislature. Kelsey has talked openly about hijacking the governor’s voucher plan and making the taxpayer-funded scholarships to private schools available to more
low-income students.

“Right now, quite frankly, it really only affects students mostly in Memphis. But there are others, obviously, who don’t want to expand, and we’ll just have to continue to have these conversations,” said Kelsey.

The Senate appears the most likely to approve a more robust “school voucher” program after having passed a program in 2011 before the House effectively killed the bill.

Just as when the House shelved the idea two years ago, the lower chamber is tentative about moving forward too fast on vouchers, said House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga.

“I’m with the governor. I don’t want to expand it either,” he said, adding he expects the lower chamber will stick with him. “I see holding firm.”

“All I know is on the House side, I think we want to go in a more measured approach and do it carefully and make sure we do it right, if we do anything,” he said.

Outside supporters are trying to encourage parents to become players in this battle. The state chapter of the American Federation for Children committed $800,000 on TV and radio advertising to win over the public on the merits of a larger voucher system.

The Beacon Center of Tennessee, which has produced several studies to back a voucher program, is also launching media buys. The Beacon Center — which refused to detail to The City Paper how much it is spending — began with radio ads shortly after Christmas and is now running commercials on TV, pointing out that three out of four students in the state struggle with reading, and test scores among Tennessee’s publicly educated children are among the worst in the country. By the end of the 30-second ad, it calls for scholarships and school choice for K-12 students.

“Our education performance is terrible. That’s a stark reality. Anyone that denies that themselves is part of the problem,” said Justin Owen, executive director of the Beacon Center. “One of the things we think we should do is empower parents to choose the schools that are best for their kids.”

The legislation needs a simple majority to pass. While that means 50 votes in the House of Representatives, it could also mean finding 50 votes to block a plan that leadership finds goes too far.

Democrats make up some 28 seats in the House of Representatives, and only one is an avid voucher fan, said the caucus chairman, Mike Turner. That means finding 23 Republican members to side with Democrats to derail a larger voucher program.

Rep. Jim Coley, a Bartlett, Tenn., Republican who sits on the House Education Committee, complains of “reform fatigue” and said so far he’s a “no” vote on vouchers.

“I think we have enough things going on right now. We need to look at what we put into place and how effective they’ve been in transforming student performance,” he said. “I’m tired of stirring the pot. I want to see what we’re cooking.”

8 Comments on this post:

By: Radix on 3/11/13 at 9:24

Vouchers are an idea whose time has come. People deserve to have a choice in their kids' education. One size does NOT fit all. I am glad Tennessee is progressing in this way.

By: binkleym on 3/11/13 at 12:15

I'm on the board of a local private school. I believe a carefully constructed voucher plan can be beneficial in opening access to better education and injecting competition.

However, it's completely possible that a poorly-though-out voucher program could make things worse. Education is filled with similar economic pathologies (adverse selection, cherry-picking) as healthcare, and there are a lot of ideologues on both sides of the spectrum who like to ignore inconvenient facts that distract from their One True Idea. Anyone who things education is simple is incompetent.

I'm leery of the slate of legislators pushing for the expanded program. Start small, find what works and what doesn't, and then grow.

By: mg357 on 3/11/13 at 1:31

mg357...Did I miss something here or did the article say *attend private school for free*? How is this to be accomplished when the allowance per student, does not meet the requirement for private school tuition. IMO, this is one can of worms you do not want to open. Lawsuits from taxpayers will abound, the reason being that public funds cannot be used for tuition to private schools, only for free public education, nothing else.

By: CoyoteCrawford on 3/11/13 at 5:27

Vouchers come at a price. Who is going to pay it?

By: CoyoteCrawford on 3/11/13 at 5:30

Private schools that receive voucher should adhere to the same regulations and testing that public school do. We need to know how well our money is being spent and what performance we are getting for our dollars.

By: mg357 on 3/11/13 at 7:44

mg357...Coyote, there's the little matter of church/state to contend with. When Kelsey opened this discussion originally, the amount on offer was 1/2 of the regular per pupil expenditure and Ron Ramsey gave the figure of $5400 which would be minus the free meal program and public transportation provided in public school with the parent having to supply the rest of tuition, the cost of meals and provide transport for their child to and from private schools which will never happen. Anyone who has been privy to witness private schooling in action knows that it's a whole other world where they demand excellence, not mediocrity. Your request to see how well public schools are doing will be apparent when the school scores are released thru the TDOE.

By: GoodieTwoShoes on 3/12/13 at 8:47

Some interesting reading:

By: Balo on 3/12/13 at 9:39

Not only is this a bad idea, it is a horrendous idea. First , the term struggling school system must be defined. Is it struggling because the students fail to reach a hideous standard of a nickel & dime standardized test (which is developed by a book company who at the same time is selling text books to match the test)? Under this situation, it is unfair to call the students of Tennessee failures. The problem lies within.

True educators know that the real challenge is to educate and develop each student from within based on the capabilities of the student. It is important that educational leaders work to improve the day to day education of all students. It is time for the shameless politicians to step aside and quit trying to re-invent the wheel.