A plan to start a school voucher program in Tennessee has been kicking around in the legislature for several years. And this may be the session it finally passes, even though Governor Bill Haslam abandoned his own proposal from years past.
Haslam isn’t the biggest fan of paying private school tuition for students, but he does see some potential if a voucher program is limited to low-income families zoned for struggling schools.
"I 100 percent believe in the concept of vouchers, that parents should be able to choose where their child goes, but I also realize this: we have a million kids in education across the state," Haslam says. "We have a larger responsibility to the entire system."
Haslam's proposal capped vouchers to 5,000 students in its first year and grew to a maximum of 20,000. Only low-income students zoned to low-performing schools could use them. The legislation failed primarily because Republican lawmakers wanted more students to be eligible.
This year, the governor dropped the idea, but other lawmakers wrote their own bill that appears on track for passage.
“It feels like it has a momentum this year that it hasn’t had in the last two," Haslam says. "It is similar to ours and we have told the advocates of that we would fund that if it got through.”
The state funding needed for the program is relatively small — just $200,000 for a couple of administrative positions. The real cost will be for school districts. Systems in Memphis and Nashville stand to lose tens of millions of dollars in per-pupil funding as that money would now follow students to a private school.
The school voucher bill with the governor’s blessing has passed the Senate Education committee and is scheduled for consideration by a House panel Tuesday.