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VOL. 127 | NO. 240 | Monday, December 10, 2012

Haslam Mulls School Vouchers for State

By Bill Dries

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Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam may or may not push directly for some kind of move to school vouchers next year on Capital Hill.


But there will almost certainly be legislation to that effect, possibly with State Sen. Brian Kelsey of Germantown leading an effort he has made in several previous legislative sessions.

And Haslam has no intention of backing away from what has been an aggressive political model for continuing to shake up long-held boundaries and assumptions about public education at the state level.

It has been two years since Haslam took office and sponsored legislation removing any cap on the number of charter schools in Tennessee. The state run Achievement School District is about halfway through its first school year of operation.

And later this month the special school district for schools in the bottom 5 percent statewide in terms of student performance will name 10 more Memphis schools it will take over in August.

Haslam met with about 40 leaders and participants of the Memphis Teacher Residency program last week at Union Avenue Baptist Church.

One topic of discussion was whether it is necessary to first fix the problems of poverty that children often bring to school or whether education reform can occur concurrently.

“The reality of your students’ lives is they come to school every day with a whole boatload of problems,” Haslam said. “While you’re up trying to teach algebra or history or whatever, there are a whole lot of other things going on. There are people that say you can’t fix education until you fix poverty.”

Several people in the group said they had been overwhelmed by those kinds of problems.

“I feel like that’s a defeatist attitude,” he said. “We’ve been working on poverty for a long time. I think if we’ll work on education with that same diligence and not ignore the poverty then I think we can make a real difference.”

The changes to public education at the state level are most evident in Memphis, which already has the most charter schools in the state and whose schools compromise both the majority of the state’s bottom five percent in student performance and all but two of the eight schools currently in the Achievement School District.

“How much money follows the child? Who qualifies ...? I think those are a couple of the big questions that we’ll have to answer.”

– Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam

Memphis has the most private schools in the state, and increasingly those private schools are blurring the boundary between public and private education with cross training of public and private school teachers in the county as well as the region developed and hosted by The Martin Institute on the campus of Presbyterian Day School.

The Memphis Catholic Schools system includes Jubilee Schools in parts of the city with the highest poverty rates and with students whose parents ordinarily couldn’t pay tuition. They attend with help from private donors.

During her tenure as superintendent of Catholic Schools, which included the opening of the Jubilee schools, Mary McDonald repeatedly defined the school system as one that was not private in its approach or philosophy.

It was a year ago this month that Haslam formed his task force on vouchers, which are being called “opportunity scholarships.”

The group’s report to Haslam, released Nov. 29, the day before his trip to Memphis, mentions the possibility of permitting public as well as private schools to take voucher or scholarship students across public school district lines or outside a student’s attendance zone or assignment within a district.

The group, which included Kelsey as well as McDonald, who is now a national education consultant, also recommended that private schools should be required to accept the scholarship or voucher as payment in full for tuition – no option to charge additional tuition.

The group did not make a recommendation on whether the state funding backing the vouchers should be the state share of its Basic Education Program funding along with the required local funding match or just the state share.

“How much money follows the child?” Haslam asked. “Who qualifies – is it just low-income kids, low-income kids in poor performing schools – a combination? I think those are a couple of the big questions that we’ll have to answer.”

Haslam said there should be income qualifications and that the move to vouchers shouldn’t be a pilot program but should have a broader application.

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