How Tennessee Voucher Momentum Splintered

Published April 23, 2013

Years of voucher proposals, polls showing parent support for vouchers, and a governor-sponsored voucher bill did not culminate in a new Tennessee voucher law this spring.

Despite a positive response from legislators early on, the lawmaker carrying Gov. Bill Haslam’s (R) 2013 voucher bill withdrew it, citing Haslam’s objections to other legislators’ attempts to expand his proposal.

Disagreement over Scope
Haslam wanted vouchers initially available only to 5,000 low-income kids attending the state’s worst schools. That caused discontent among voucher proponents who saw the governor’s bill as too small.

Sen. Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown), who has supported several voucher bills in the past, hoped to amend Haslam’s bill into a bigger program, and Sen. Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville) released a separate plan allowing 10,000 kids in initially, letting families of four earning up to $75,000 qualify, and allowing voucher recipients to come from other than state-designated “failing schools.”

“I had originally hoped for a statewide bill,” Kelsey said. “Some legislators support opportunity scholarships only if children in their districts are eligible, and others support them only if their districts are excluded.”

Tennessee has no private school choice program, and it allows only limited charter schools and online education. A 2012 poll found 59 percent of Tennessee voters support vouchers. Twenty-seven and 28 percent of Tennessee fourth graders scored proficient in reading and math, respectively, on the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress. On average, Tennessee students score below national NAEP averages.

‘Shocking, Disappointing’
Attempts to amend the governor’s proposal were the real sticking point, said Haslam spokesman David Smith.

“We took it off notice because … we wanted this bill to be considered on its merit,” Smith said. “We wanted separate bills, other proposals, to be considered separately.”

School choice proponents were disappointed by the lack of compromise.

“We certainly expected a discussion,” said Jeff Reed, a spokesman for the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. “Shocking and disappointing are the only words to describe what the governor did. To not even let the bill be voted on is particularly a shame for families. Families who are not satisfied with the quality of their schools now have to wait.”

Haslam’s bill was withdrawn before it even received a public hearing, noted Trey Moore, policy director for the Beacon Center of Tennessee.

Separate Bills, Separate Consideration
Although the governor says he merely insisted on keeping voucher proposals separate, his actions precluded any bill from consideration, Moore said.

“Despite what the governor said about not standing in our way, [three Republicans on the House subcommittee] said they couldn’t support a broader bill at the same time as the governor’s bill,” Moore said. “The House Education Committee chairman was working against a broader bill in favor of the governor’s bill. We had the votes all along in the Senate. We thought we were negotiating in good faith.”

Attempted Amendments
School choice proponents decided to trade their wish for bigger or no caps on the program for an amendment lifting the requirement that voucher recipients come only from failing schools, Moore said.

“We caved on the size and just focused on the structure. We decided as a coalition if we couldn’t get that failing-school revision we’d be better off with no bill,” Moore said.

Expanding the voucher cap would have gotten the bill better support in the House, Kelsey said.

“I had hoped that the governor would be willing to negotiate over such minor changes,” Kelsey said.

Failing Schools vs. Everyone
In 2012, Haslam appointed a taskforce to study and propose voucher legislation.

“As a result of that process the governor believed that his proposal … was the best fit with the state’s overall education reform efforts,” Smith said.

Voucher proponents on the taskforce repeatedly stressed vouchers should be open to all students, not just those zoned into the state’s worst 5 percent of schools, Moore said.

But in the governor’s bill, “only kids in a bottom 5 percent schools [were eligible],” Moore said. “If you’re dead set on going with a failing schools bill, you have to at least go with an A-F grading system.”

Programs giving vouchers only to students attending schools rated a certain way, as in Florida and Ohio, “are very difficult to navigate for parents,” Reed said. “School grades can change. If you base it fully on income, you know right away whether you qualify.”

Research shows bigger reforms yield bigger results, Reed said. A very small reform measure has less chance of widespread success.

“Absolutely kids in failing schools deserve a choice,” Reed said. “This is not a philosophical difference, but to do what works.”

Future Prospects Murky
Kelsey said he will sponsor another voucher bill in 2014, for the ninth year in a row.

“My primary concern has always been to ensure that all low-income, urban children will be covered by the program,” Kelsey said. “I expect that Tennessee will be able to pass a compromise bill next year.”

But with an election year approaching, Reed said legislators may not stand behind a voucher bill unless the governor takes the lead.

Haslam is less certain of a voucher bill passing next session.

“The governor believes in his bill and that it is the right way to go, but next year is a long way away,” Smith said.


Learn more:
“Tennessee K-12 and School Choice Survey,” Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, June 2012:—School-Choice-Survey.aspx.

Image by Nathan Reed.