school voucher program

After several years of advancing major education initiatives, Tennessee lawmakers this year failed to pass the biggest school bills before them. 

The 108th Tennessee General Assembly, which adjourned Friday, debated a proposal to create a school voucher program and a so-called parent trigger measure that would allow parents to decide the fate of a struggling school.  Both appeared to have momentum but failed by the end of the session.

Tennessee lawmakers trying to wrap up the General Assembly this month are hoping to push through two key education proposals.

One measure creates a state panel to authorize charter schools for five counties, and the other seeks to clear the way for cities to begin forming municipal school systems. The session began with several proposals aimed at continuing education reform in Tennessee.

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Republican legislative leaders in Tennessee are glad the most contentious issues of this session are largely decided as they enter the final weeks.

Gov. Bill Haslam's decision last week to withdraw his limited school voucher proposal highlights the sometimes contentious nature of his relationship with fellow Republicans in the Legislature, who now hold a supermajority. The governor was unable to persuade a faction led by Sen. Brian Kelsey to refrain from trying to expand the bill to more families.

Republican lawmakers who’ve tried for years to divert public education money to pay private school tuition say they won’t give up. Wednesday Gov. Bill Haslam yanked his proposal from consideration because legislators wanted to expand it.

The governor’s bill would have started small, limiting school vouchers to poor students in failing schools. Others have been looking at something many times larger for middle class families. Sen. Brian Kelsey has led the voucher push. 

“This was definitely a minor set back and disappointing that the governor pulled his support, but I am fully committed to helping these low income children get the quality education that they deserve. There are other vehicles out there that are available,” he said.

Tennessee Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris says that lawmakers will either have to approve Gov. Bill Haslam’s approach to a school voucher program or face the measure being withdrawn entirely.

The Collierville Republican told reporters Tuesday that he perceives a growing level of comfort with Haslam’s more measured approach to the bill that would supply a limited number of parents of children in the state’s worst schools with public money to pay for a private education.

The state Senator shepherding Gov. Bill Haslam’s school voucher bill through the legislature says it doesn’t go nearly far enough. He says he will offer an amendment making many more students eligible to have their private school tuition paid with public money.

With proposed restrictions limiting vouchers to poor students attending struggling schools, Sen. Brian Kelsey says just 3.5 percent of Tennessee students would qualify. And only a fraction of those would take the offer.

 “After we do all this heavy lifting to work on this bill this year, if we end up with only two-thousandths of one percent of students being helped by it, I will be sorely disappointed,” Kelsey said.

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State lawmakers raised several reservations but ultimately passed Gov. Bill Haslam’s school voucher program in its first test.

Two members of the House Education Subcommittee voted no, including one Republican. The former school superintendent says he doesn’t believe public money should be diverted to private schools. Democrat Joe Pitts of Clarksville voted no after asking if private schools would be forced to still provide a free lunch. Only poor students could qualify for vouchers under the plan.

“I’m just really concerned that we’re targeting that at-risk population, but we’re really not doing anything else to supply that basic human need, which is food,” Pitts said.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam's proposal to create a school voucher program is drawing mixed response from lawmakers and educators.

Proponents say it’s another option for parents seeking to provide a better education for their children. Those opposed say voucher programs are unproven, and they don't like the idea of taking funds from public schools and giving them to private institutions. 

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam says he will introduce his own proposal to create a school voucher program in the state, though he declined to elaborate about which parents he wants to make eligible to use public money to send their children to private schools.

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A school voucher task force has submitted its recommendations to Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam. Haslam appointed the nine-member task force to study how to start a school voucher program a year ago. The group includes lawmakers and representatives from both private and public schools.