A state task force charged with devising an ideal plan allowing parents to enroll their students in private schools on the taxpayer’s dime is still largely divided on the best way to go about it.
At the group’s highly anticipated final meeting, the Opportunity Scholarship Task Force struggled to agree on the specifics of a program it plans to recommend to Gov. Bill Haslam to consider pitching to lawmakers next year.
“It’s not a question of if we have more time, then we’re going to come up with the perfect solution,” said Kevin Huffman, commissioner of the state Department of Education.
“It’s a question of there are different potential options and there are pros and cons to all of them, and ultimately the General Assembly and the governor have to decide what they think,” he said.
Huffman declined to say whether or not the state should pursue a voucher program, which allows parents to send their students to private school using public tax dollars. Huffman said his job is to lay out the options and would not offer the governor further recommendations than what is in the report.
The task force has so far agreed that private schools should be screened before accepting students with vouchers, that schools must produce standardized test scores from students to hold the schools’ performances accountable, that scholarships should be limited to low-income students and that the amount of a scholarship should meet a minimum amount.
A key point of contention on the nine-member board was which students would be eligible for vouchers. While the committee agreed low-income students should be the focus, members were torn regarding whether those students should also come from failing schools or the students themselves be struggling academically.
It appears the task force’s 93-page report (a draft of which can be found here ) will also include editor’s notes showing where the task force was split on several major issues, such as whether to provide transportation, offer the program either statewide or as a small pilot, what tests to use to keep private schools accountable for student performance, and how much the so-called “vouchers” would be worth when handed to the private school.
Despite those unresolved questions, Haslam virtually guaranteed that vouchers would be on the table next year when the legislature returns to Capitol Hill, he told The City Paper after the meeting. He said he is still unsure if it will be one of his top priorities.
“It’s hard for me to picture it not being discussed this year,” he said.
Haslam ordered legislators to back off talk about a voucher program in 2012 to give the task force time to lay out a program. The year before, a measure to launch a pilot program won approval in the state Senate but stalled in the House of Representatives.
Since then, momentum has been building for discussions on a voucher program. House Speaker Beth Harwell, who said she herself prefers the public school system, said her Republican peers in the chamber are more keen on giving parents more options  on where to send their students to school after the Metro Nashville Public Schools board rejected a specific charter school application targeting West Nashville.
Legislative decisions on whether to write a voucher program into law will likely fall down to positions of rural lawmakers versus urban ones, said Jerry Winters, a lobbyist for the Tennessee Education Association, which opposes a voucher system.
“The details [are] what will kill this idea eventually,” he said.
“With some of the rural legislators, they see it as taking money out of their local school system,” said Winters. “Some of these local school systems are doing an outstanding job and [rural lawmakers] are going to be very hesitant to vote for a bill that is going to take money away from them.”
|Draft Task Force Report.pdf ||5.11 MB|