Senator Mark Norris
9A Legislative Plaza,
Nashville, Tennessee 37243-0232
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By Tom Humphrey, KnoxvilleNews.com
April 8, 2014
NASHVILLE — The Senate Finance Committee approved on Tuesday Gov. Bill Haslam’s plan for launching a limited school voucher system in five Tennessee counties, including Knox.
The committee voted 8-2 for the bill (SB196), an indication it has enough support to clear the full Senate, though many believe support is considerably softer in the House. There, the measure still awaits a House Finance Committee vote — tentatively scheduled for Wednesday — with legislative leaders pushing for adjournment by next week.
The Tennessee Choice and Opportunity Scholarship Act, as the bill is named, would authorize state payments to private schools for up to 5,000 students in its first year of operation, expanding each year to a maximum of 20,000 statewide in the fourth year.
The students receiving vouchers would have to live in a school district with at least one “failing school,” or an institution ranked in the bottom 5 percent of schools statewide, and just five districts meet that standard — the Davidson, Hamilton, Hardeman, Knox and Shelby school systems.
The students would also have to be from low-income families entitled to receive free or reduced price lunch under federal standards.
Under Haslam’s original proposal, introduced last year, only students from a failing school would be eligible. Under the bill as modified this year, other students from low-income families within the same school district — for example, anywhere in Knox County — will become eligible on a first-come, first-served basis if the ceiling on numbers has not been reached in a given year.
Statewide the average state payment would be about $6,400 per student, though that would vary from district to district, Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman told the committee.
Senate Democratic Leader Jim Kyle of Memphis told Huffman that vouchers appear to be creating a situation for the state where “we are competing against ourselves.”
He noted that Memphis already has the state-funded Achievement School District in place for students attending failing schools and the state is at the same time paying charter schools for each student enrolled and paying out-of-county virtual schools for each student enrolled.
All will be taking money from a public school system that will not see any substantial reduction in operating expenses. And some private schools are also seeking such students, he said.
“And what are they leaving behind?” he asked, suggesting there could be a “calamity” with taxpayers statewide sharing the burden of underwriting costs for Shelby County schools, where the state’s largest concentration of eligible students is found.
As far as competition for students among many entities, Huffman said, “We are substantially putting our money where our mouth is. We are not afraid of the competition.”
“I believe we are starting down the road without knowing where we are going to end up,” Kyle said. “There has got to be an end game so that we know what we’re doing.”
Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville, who is sponsoring the bill for the Haslam administration, conceded that the “end game” is not clear on vouchers.
“But there also has to be a point of beginning,” Norris said, adding that children who could be positively impacted are “aging out and moving on” the more time legislators spend in launching a program.
“The period of time anyone has to work with a child’s life is very limited,” he said. “Either we have been able to touch them in a positive way or we haven’t.”
The bill is ardently pushed by several national education reform organizations that have hired lobbyists. Last year, those organizations pushed a much broader bill and both that measure and the governor’s bill failed. This year, most have united behind the Haslam bill as amended.