Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam says the third year of significant education reform legislation in the Tennessee General Assembly will include vouchers but added that “ultimately our efforts in Tennessee are going to be around the vast majority of kids that are in public schools.”
And during his Thursday, Jan. 17, visit to Memphis, Haslam said the voucher bill will focus on “low-income students in our worst-performing schools to give them the opportunity to have a choice.”
“If you are a student from a low-income family in a poor-performing school, why wouldn’t we want to give them another opportunity?” Haslam asked at the end of his tour of Corning Achievement Elementary School in Frayser.
But in Memphis earlier in the week, state Senate Speaker and Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey had different ideas about income guidelines for the vouchers to be used to pay for private education with the share of state funding on a per pupil basis.
“If it is income related we need to make sure it is relatively high. Middle income people need them as much as other people need them,” Ramsey said after touring the new Electrolux plant in Southwest Memphis. “Someone that’s working here in a factory like Electrolux, they can’t afford the tuition of private schools.”
Haslam is expected to have more to say about the voucher proposal during his Jan. 28 state of the state address to the Legislature.
Haslam had visited Corning, which is part of the state-run Achievement School District, before the start of the current school year.
The district for the state’s bottom 5 percent schools in terms of student achievement goes from six to 12 schools in Memphis in its second school year.
“We’ve banked all of this on literally better results in terms of student learning,” Haslam said at the end of the tour. He and first lady Crissy Haslam talked with students and teachers as well as school principal Jessica Jackson.
“Teachers have a lot of insight into what works,” Jackson told Bill Haslam as she talked of more collaboration between teachers and principals. “Generally speaking, if you find things they are passionate about, they are going to work the program a lot better than something I just decided one day would work.”
Several of the teachers Haslam spoke with said they applied to be teachers in the Achievement School District after more than a decade as Memphis City Schools teachers because of the freedom it offers in teaching methods and approaches.
Before the Corning tour, Haslam met with a group of charter school providers at Bridges USA, something he did a year ago this month to encourage them to look at opening schools in Tennessee as the Tennessee Legislature removed the cap on the number of charter schools the state can have.
Memphis has more charter schools than any other part of the state. Some of them are part of the ASD operating under contract with the state. Corning is one of the district schools run directly by the state.
“What I’ve told them is this, personally – this Achievement School District and our success here, to me, matters personally as much as anything we are doing in the administration,” Haslam said of his talk with the operators.
Tennessee legislators are preparing a comprehensive charter school bill this year that is expected to address such issues as state authorization of charter school applications outside the Achievement School District.
“We want to show the difference that a great operator can make. What we are really doing in the Achievement School District, I think, is actually precedent setting for the whole country,” Haslam said. “We are looking at a different way to pay teachers. We are looking at different ways to give principals more accountability in the building.”