The Metro school board’s high-profile Great Hearts Academies denial is motivating lawmakers to approve a plan that would allow parents to send their children to private schools on taxpayers’ dime, said House Speaker Beth Harwell.
Parents want options, “and we didn’t give them that. And consequently, where do they go next but to vouchers,” Harwell told The City Paper.
“If the Metropolitan school board is concerned about vouchers, then they should have been more conscientious in helping us bring in an outstanding public charter school to this state,” she said.
Vouchers are otherwise known as “opportunity scholarships” and allow students to use taxpayer dollars to pay their way at private schools, including parochial schools. The idea is controversial because it would siphon money from the public school system.
Harwell said she prefers having “great charter schools across the state” than resorting to a voucher program but said she’ll reserve judgement until she sees specific details of a proposal.
“Everybody wants to keep moving forward in education reform and some folks see that as the next step, one more tool for children. At this point, I don’t know exactly what it’s going to look like so I really can’t commit to it,” she said.
When the GOP-led legislature considered in 2011 to use vouchers to give parents greater choice over where to send their children to school, the proposal won approval in the state Senate but never left a committee in the House of Representatives.
Gov. Bill Haslam begged off the issue last year and instead asked a task force to craft an ideal voucher program he could consider. The group meets Nov. 13 and expects to release its proposal by the end of the year.
The school board for Metro Nashville Public Schools is set to meet that same day and discuss whether to hire outside legal counsel and sue the state for withholding $3.4 million from the school district as punishment for not approving the Great Hearts charter proposal after the state Board of Education ordered it to do so.
Will Pinkston, a member of the local board and former political operative, told board members this week  he fears their action may have set off the legislature.
“While I’m really troubled by the loss of dollars, I’m more concerned about legislation that’s being formulated right now in response to the events of this summer and fall,” he said at Tuesday’s school board meeting. “The more we drag out this conversation, the more likely we’ll be subjected to a legislative response.”