Recommendations on how best to let parents send their children to private schools using taxpayer dollars are leaving lawmakers with major decisions to make when writing the ideas into law.
A study by the governor’s Opportunity Scholarship Task Force released on Thursday offered legislators recommendations but stopped short of offering many concrete solutions. Factors such as implementing the program statewide and exclusively to children from low-income families are two points lawmakers would have to decide on if they choose to push forward with a school vouchers program next year.
Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman, who chaired the task force, said, “Their serious consideration of this project helped ensure we were able to offer recommendations for the governor, motivated by our shared goal to improve educational outcomes for all students in Tennessee.”
Last fall Gov. Bill Haslam charged the nine-member panel with serving up an ideal program to offer students vouchers to attend the private school of their choice for no cost out of their pocket.
Lawmakers had debated for the last few years the merits of adopting a voucher program, but the governor told them to hold off in 2012 while the group studied Tennessee’s options. However, the group was not asked to evaluate the merits of a voucher program.
The entire report can be found here .
For months, the task force members have debated the scope of a potential Tennessee voucher plan. Some insist vouchers should be offered to students from low-income families who do not already attend a private school, to students at failing schools or to all students. Members also discussed whether to confine the project to a pilot program focused in the state’s four major metropolitan counties where more than a third of the state’s private schools are located.
In the end, the task force offered light recommendations Haslam can use when deciding whether to mold a voucher program he could offer the legislature or to allow lawmakers to craft a program themselves, which he would weigh in on.
“I do think it’s just blatantly unfair that we doom children to failure simply because the ZIP code they’re born in. And their parents, if they choose, ought to have that choice,” said Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, who said he would stack the Senate Education Committee with “the votes to get something like that out.” The Senate easily approved a voucher proposal in 2011.
Ramsey said he sees the task force recommendations as a starting point for the legislature, adding the program shouldn’t be limited entirely to low-income students or the major metropolitan areas.
“I think we can hash out those problems like that,” he said, adding he would go along with starting a program on a smaller scale if that’s the only option the General Assembly has to pass the legislation.
The task force made several hard-and-fast recommendations in the report, including that private schools should meet certain criteria before the state allows them to accept vouchers; taxpayer funds included in the voucher should operate in place of the full private school tuition; and students should have the option of not only attending private schools but other public school districts, even across county lines.
The task force also said participating private schools should have to administer state- or national-level tests to students using vouchers to keep schools accountable for student performance.
According to the report, more than half the private schools that responded to a survey said they would not participate in a voucher program if the state required them to issue the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program testing. Only 16 percent of schools surveyed administer the TCAP, while 64 percent of schools require their students take some sort of national test.
But there were several disagreements on a potential program that Haslam and lawmakers will have to wade through, including determining the ultimate goal of the program. While the task force recommended the goal be to improve student outcomes, some argued it should also be to provide parents choice.
Aside from those issues — not to mention deciding on how to fund the scholarship — other major issues the task force said it was split  on include: whether to focus energy only to low-income students or also to those from poor-performing schools; whether to limit the program as a pilot in Davidson, Shelby, Hamilton and Knox Counties or launch statewide; and whether to implement the program as early as next school year.
Metro, Memphis and Hamilton County school districts all have charter schools, providing some levels of choice, while Knoxville is poised to open its first charter school next year. While in some cases the task force found the school choice options adequate, it concluded current choices did not meet families’ needs.