Gov undecided about a third voucher run

Kelsey: 'We need more help on lobbying'

While Gov. Bill Haslam said the state needs to keep focused on what it’s already doing in education, he’s undecided about pitching another school voucher plan next year, he told reporters Tuesday.

The question of whether to allow students to attend private schools using state taxpayer funds has followed the governor during his entire first term. Initially, he sent a task force to brainstorm an ideal program for Tennessee, then twice pitched small-scale proposals that later died in a Republican-dominated legislature torn between the size of the program.

“What we want to do is continue on those things we’ve been doing, because I really think they’re working,” Haslam said when asked by reporters if he was considering further education reforms after an event praising Williamson County for high test scores.

Asked what "continuing on those things we've been doing" means for pitching another voucher plan, he said, “We haven’t made a final decision on that."

Outside groups have invested heavily in Tennessee to convince legislators to adopt a school voucher program. The latest is the Charles Koch Institute and the Charles Koch Foundation, a groups founded by one of the billionaire Koch brothers who have used their wealth to push for conservative issues to the ire of liberals.

The institute hosted a panel discussion in Nashville last month called, “Education Opportunities,” which focused almost exclusively on encouraging the state to adopt a school voucher program. Loaded with out-of-state panelists along with free-market think tank Beacon Center of Tennessee CEO, they stressed they’re “confused” as to why a Republican-led state lacks a voucher program.

In attendance was Sen. Brian Kelsey, a Germantown Republican who has spearheaded attempts to pass expansive voucher programs. He said he welcomes help from the groups to rally support, adding, "I feel like we need more help on the lobbying end at this point, but I am glad that we are getting as much information out there as possible."

A spokesman of the Koch Foundation, Brennan Brown, said he sees involvement by the institute being more informational and the foundation financially supports that effort. He did not say, when reportedly asked by the Tennessean, whether the group will get involved financially to push for vouchers here.

"There's going to be groups that do that," said Haslam about the Koch groups' interest in Tennessee vouchers. "I think choice is good. I’m an advocate of choice, but the focus has to be on where most of our kids are always going to be.”