Knoxville News Sentin
School voucher legislation put off a year; Haslam creates study group
NASHVILLE — Gov. Bill Haslam moved Thursday to block action in the 2012 legislative session on a bill to create a voucher system for school systems in Tennessee's four biggest counties.
Instead, Haslam announced he is setting up a task force to study the issue until fall 2012 and make recommendations on what form any "equal opportunity scholarships" would take.
Legislation establishing a voucher system in Knox, Davidson, Hamilton and Shelby counties was approved in the past legislative session by the state Senate, but failed in the House. Since then, school boards in all four of the counties have adopted resolutions opposing the bill.
Rep. Bill Dunn, a Knoxville Republican and lead sponsor of the voucher bill in the House, said he had been briefed on the governor's plans and has mixed sentiments.
Dunn said he is "not going to close any doors" toward possible action without the governor's blessing but acknowledged the yearlong study likely means a year of waiting before any legislative action.
"While it means another year of children being in places where they're not developing as they should, it is at least promising that the governor recognizes this is a very important issue and that we're going to get it right," said Dunn.
Haslam said in a news release that the study group will be "tasked with looking at how a program would fit into Tennessee's overall education reform strategy and that seeks to provide meaningful education options to disadvantaged students."
"I support school choice options and believe that opportunity scholarships could be an impactful tool in Tennessee," Haslam said. "We should offer alternatives to low-income students and their parents who may feel stuck in failing schools. Charter schools have been a significant part of that process, and it is appropriate to explore additional opportunities."
The pending bill, sponsored in the Senate by Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Collierville, would make "opportunity scholarships" available to children eligible for free and reduced-price lunches in state's biggest school systems. The vouchers would be for half the amount of money now provided for each public school student enrolled in the four systems.
Kelsey said that would amount to between $4,200 and $5,400.
Kelsey sent an email after the governor's announcement saying, "I am pleased that the governor feels that this bill is important enough to perfect through meaningful discussion."
Kelsey is one of two legislators appointed to the task force. The other is House Education Committee Chairman Richard Montgomery, R-Sevierville, who has previously voiced opposition to a voucher bill in 2012 and said the issue needs more study.
State Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman will chair the task force. Former state Sen. Jamie Woodson of Knoxville, president & CEO of the State Collaborative on Reforming Education, will also be a member.
Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey suggested Thursday that the Legislature wait until after the November 2012, elections to take action on establishing a state health care exchange for implementing the federal law known to Republicans as "Obamacare."