Tennessee Plans to Adopt Indiana School Voucher Program


Tennessee lawmakers, buoyed by success of Indiana program, pushing for school vouchers

As Indiana education reformers celebrate a voucher milestone with the nations largest first-year program, school choice advocates in Tennessee are capitalizing on that momentum to launch their own program, likely with more stringent restrictions.

Nearly 4,000 K-12 Hoosier students participated in the statewide Indiana Choice Scholarship program in its inaugural year, and data released by the Indiana Department of Education shows the program is helping students who need help the most.

About 85 percent of Indianas voucher participants qualify for the federal Free and Reduced Lunch Program, and nearly 70 percent reside in metropolitan areas, home of the states worst schools.

More than half of the scholarship users are from minority families.

Officials in Tennessee say the apparent success of Indianas program, particularly in reaching key student demographics, is helping to boost momentum for vouchers in the Volunteer State, where legislation is pending in the state House to launch a pilot program.

Vouchers are expected to be a controversial and hotly discussed issue when the General Assembly reconvenes in January. Public school and teachers union officials are already aligned against the proposal.

But if the numbers in Indiana show anything, its that there is a demand for more quality educational options. Parents in Indiana, Tennessee and everywhere else want choices.

The only question that remains is if lawmakers in Tennessee are willing to buck powerful political interests and ineffective traditions to do whats best for the states most disadvantaged students.

The debate

Ryan Turbeville, policy and outreach coordinator for the Beacon Center, told Education Action Group that Indianas success with vouchers is reverberating in Tennessee as lawmakers head into a second year of serious discussion on the issue.

The idea (of vouchers) has been around for a long time, but places like Indiana show that politically it can be done. From our perspective, (Indianas voucher success) contributes to our momentum. It shows this is going on in other states and if we want to be a leader in education, its something we need to pass, Turbeville said.

It helps us to point to Indiana as an example.

Legislation to create a private school voucher program for Tennessees four largest school districts passed the state Senate last year, and is currently under consideration in a House education subcommittee. The bill, HB 388, is slated for consideration early next year.

The bill would create a program for low-income students in the states four largest counties Shelby, Knox, Davidson and Hamilton. A new version is also pending in the state Senate that is essentially the same as HB 388, with the addition of an end-of-year standardized testing requirement for schools that accept vouchers.

Round two

Tennessee Sen. Brian Kelsey, who sponsored both bills, said the testing requirement is an effort to appease some lawmakers who raised accountability issues with last years voucher bill. Under either proposal, about 200,000 students would be eligible for vouchers, which would be worth about half of what their local districts currently spends to educate them.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Kelseys proposal, however, is that the local school districts would get to keep the leftover state funding for students who would leave with vouchers.

Despite the potential for significant savings, school officials in all four of the states largest districts listed in the bill have vowed to fight the measure. Their argument, illogically, is about money.

The school districts are fighting this bill with all their strength, Kelsey told EAG, adding that reformers are picking up new supporters every day.

Their biggest concern is the loss in funding, and of course they are not calculating that they are losing a whole student they dont have to educate with each voucherstudent that leaves,Kelsey said.

Kenneth Whalum, a local pastor and school board member in Shelby County, testified in favor of vouchers at a recent education subcommittee hearing. Hes virtually the only school official to publicly support Kelseys proposals.

I am convinced that the majority of parents, regardless of race and regardless of socioeconomic status, would be supportive of this, Whalum told EAG.

Whalum likened the public education system to a sinking Titanic, and said most education officials would rather watch the entire ship go under thanprovide life vests in the form of vouchers to save some students.

Its cruelty, education neglect, child abuse, Whalum said. I wish his bill went further than it does. I wish every dime of public money followed the children.

I dont see any downside to that.

Whalum said he refuses to sign a pledge adopted by all four school districts to oppose Kelseys voucher proposal. So far, he appears to be a lone wolf on the issue, at least locally.

In the entire Shelby County school system, there are 23 school board members and Im the only one thats been publically supportive of Senator Kelseys bill, he said, adding that for many the debate is more about preserving control than whats really best for students.

They are going to naturally buck up, and join arms against threats to the system, he said.

Political climate

Tennessee lawmakers continue to approach vouchers with caution, probably due to fear of crossing powerful special interest groups like the Tennessee Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, which hates vouchers.

I personally am going to be very, very reluctant to support a program like this until we get every bit of information we can possibly get, look at it, evaluate it, and see what the pros and cons are, state Rep. Richard Montgomery said during a recent subcommittee meeting, according to media reports.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam has said he hasnt made up his mind on the issue, but will decide around the end of the year. Lt. Gov. Ron Ramseys support for the concept of vouchers seems lukewarm.

If you have children trapped in failing schools and their parents dont have the means to allow them to go to an alternative then we need to start with a small, pilot project along the lines of what Sen. Brian Kelsey is bringing forward, and be able to allow those students to have some choice. Its just unfair that they are trapped in these schools, Ramsey said, according to TNreport.com.

Turbeville said that while many of Tennessees parents and education reformers would love to replicate what Indiana has done in terms of vouchers, the political climate likely will necessitate a smaller program as a starting point.

I think the (voucher) bill could pass on the House floor, he said, but there is not a wide majority on that (House education subcommittee) that are supportive.

I think its just a matter of time. There are a lot of legislators that really want to see this happen, Turbeville said.

Kelsey is also optimistic that his voucher program will pass if it makes it out of the House subcommittee, but said it will face very significant opposition.

I think that almost every legislator knows this is the right thing to do for low income students, he said. Unfortunately, low income parents and their kids dont have a lot of political clout.