Haslam to Introduce Own School Voucher Proposal

ERIK SCHELZIG | Associated Press

NASHVILLE (AP) – Gov. Bill Haslam confirmed Monday that he will introduce his own proposal to create a school voucher program in Tennessee, though he declined to elaborate about which parents he wants to make eligible to use public money to send their children to private schools.

The Republican governor would only tell reporters after an education discussion with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush that his voucher bill will be targeted at children from lower-income families who attend the state's worst schools.

"We will have a voucher bill and we're working out the specifics on that, and talking with a lot of different parties," he said.

Haslam last year persuaded the Legislature to defer taking up voucher proposals while a task force he appointed studied the various options on school choice. He had previously been undecided about whether he would take the lead on a voucher proposal or if he would let lawmakers control the measure.

"We spent an extraordinary amount of time looking at it," Haslam said. "We thought once we did that we had the responsibility – having said, 'Hold off, let's study it' – to come with a proposal that we thought would make sense."

The governor said his plan will be paid for through the state's school funding formula, but wouldn't say how much the program would cost. He also ruled out replicating tax credit programs established in states like Florida that have created tax credit programs to offset corporate donations used to fund the vouchers.

Haslam said he also plans to introduce legislation to give local school districts more flexibility on how they pay teachers, but that it won't be a repeat of his failed attempt last year to lift a cap on average class sizes.

"We're not going to go down that road," he said.

Haslam declined to give further details about his voucher to teacher pay proposals that he plans to unveil along with rest of his legislative agenda at his annual State of the State address Jan. 28.

Democratic state Rep. Lois DeBerry of Memphis said she has a series of questions about vouchers, including about the overall cost and whether the program would be targeted solely at urban areas.

"Right now, I'm just not sold on it," she said.

Haslam did rule out sponsoring legislation to create a state-wide authorizer for charter schools. He said he expects lawmakers to sponsor such legislation in the aftermath of a fight over Nashville's refusal to accept the application of Phoenix-based Great Hearts Academies despite being ordered to by the state Board of Education last year.

The Haslam administration in response decided to withhold $3.4 million from the city's public school system.

"The concerns over what happened right here in Nashville has raised the awareness level of that on the radar screens," Haslam said. "What they're trying to look for is a bill that retains some local authority, but makes certain the authorizations are according to what the Legislature intended them to be."

Bush said during the forum hosted by the State Collaborative on Reforming Education, or SCORE, that a statewide authorizer would be helpful to keep local boards to unfairly blocking deserving charter schools. A state appeals court declared Florida's 2006 law creating a statewide authorizer be in "total and fatal conflict" with the state's constitution

"Had we had one, my guess it would we be seldom used, because districts would authorize more charter schools who were deserving of that," Bush said. "Basically it would be used as a tool to bring about a better-behaved school district that is complying with the law that you have."

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