Haslam to 're-engage' voucher plan

Ramsey favors more expansive approach

The governor said he will try again to usher in small-scale school vouchers plan to passage this legislative session, although the Senate’s leading Republican said he wants a more expansive program this year.

Gov. Bill Haslam appears to be leaving little room for negotiation. He said he “strongly” favors keeping the program limited to a pilot, which he has capped at 5,000 students the first year and growing to 20,000 students. He also wants to keep his plan focused on making private school voucher options available to low income students attending the state’s worst schools, he said.

“There’s a whole lot of questions around vouchers. We want to have an approach that says, let’s see what the impact is both on students and on districts and on overall education progress in Tennessee,” he told reporters Thursday, saying he’d “re-engage” with the same bill they proposed last year.

“We don’t want to have an expansive plan that I don’t think Tennessee is ready for right now,” he said.

The governor pulled this plan off the table in the final weeks of the legislative session last year when some Senate Republicans toyed with hijacking it in favor of a larger program, despite the governor’s calls for legislators to keep their hands off his bill. Support for vouchers was fairly split in the House of Representatives.

Restarting his attempt to pass the smaller program rekindles debate over providing taxpayer-funded scholarships for public school students to attend private school. It’s a discussion public school officials argue will siphon money from the public education system with lackluster accountability but advocates say offer more choices to families landlocked in low-performing schools.

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey said he’d prefer to offer the state-funded private school vouchers to families statewide regardless their income or the quality of their current school.

For the sake of compromising with the governor, Ramsey said he’d favor a program extended to 10,000 low income students the first year at the state’s lowest performing schools. Any of those 10,000 seats not used will be offered to any family on a first come first serve basis, regardless of income or quality of school, he said.

“I know he’s against that. That’s where I want to be,” said Ramsey about the governor. Asked whether can get Haslam on board, he replied, “I’m working on it.”