As highlighted in Gov. Haslam’s speech last night, he’s putting forward a relatively conservative version of vouchers this year. The bill itself (HB 0190/SB 0196) was filed yesterday. It’s being carried in the House by Rep. McCormick and in the Senate by Sen. Norris. The salient points are as follows:
(1) It’s only for low-income students (family must qualify for free or reduced price lunch to be eligible)
(2) It’s only for students in low-performing schools (must be a bottom 5% school “in overall achievement as determined by the performance standards and other criteria set by the state board”)
(3) It’s only for public school students (sort of — you have to have been in a public school for at least 2 semesters immediately prior to receiving a voucher OR you’re enrolling in a Tennessee school for the first time)
(4) Participation by private schools is voluntary (and they have to agree to take what the state pays and not charge parents anything above that)
(5) Participating private schools will have to give state assessments and turn over certain data on performance of voucher students.
(6) (THIS IS A BIG ONE) Participating private schools do not have to offer special education services. They cannot “discriminate against students with special education needs” BUT “as a nonpublic school, a participating school is required to offer only those services it already provides to assist students with special needs. If a scholarship student would have been entitled to receive special education services in the public school the student would otherwise be attending, the parent shall acknowledge in writing, as part of the enrollment process, that the parent agrees to accept only services that are available to the student in the nonpublic school.”
Some general thoughts:
Just as a point of comparison, our charter schools legislation started the exact same way, with regards to the first few requirements. Originally, charter school enrollment was limited to free and reduced price lunch students who were in “failing” schools. Over the years, these requirements have been dropped. Tennessee is now an “open enrollment” charter school state (anyone can go to a charter school), with no caps on the number of charters operating.
If/when the vouchers legislation passes, I expect to see similar broadening in coming years (unless the generally anti-voucher (with the notable exception of Rep. John DeBerry) Democrats stage an amazing electoral comeback).
Other thoughts: The requirement that participating private schools not offer any special education services beyond what they already offer (which, for most private schools (with some exceptions), is very little — most private schools are not equipped/interested in catering to severe special needs students), is a very important point. Though this provision is in line with the TNGOP’s stance on not forcing private entities to act a certain way (unless you happen to be Vanderbilt University), it’s still feeds the narrative among anti-voucher (and anti-charter) folks that these reforms simply skim the cream off of public school enrollment (“cream” including high-performing students and, more importantly, students with motivated and active parents) and leave behind low-performing students and high-needs special education students.
Much more ink will be spilled about this in the coming weeks and months, so be sure to check back.