Vouchers proposed for kids in Tennessee’s worst schools


By Mary C. Tillotson | Watchdog.org

OPPORTUNITY: Tennessee lawmakers are considering giving students in the state’s worst schools an opportunity to attend private schools.

More than a thousand Tennessee parents trekked to Nashville in January to rally in favor of school choice.

Lawmakers there are listening.

The state is likely to pass a school voucher law, which would allow students in Tennessee’s worst schools access to private schools, according to those watching the Legislature. Vouchers would be worth about $6,500.

Gov. Bill Haslam proposed a more limited program last year, but legislators wanted a more expanded program. Failing to reach a compromise, neither program was passed.

Of the several school choice bills proposed this session, the governor’s bills from last year are gaining the most traction. Sponsored by Rep. Gerald McCormick and Sen. Mark Norris, the bills are not yet identical, but lawmakers will likely find a compromise, said Stephanie Linn, state programs and government relations director for the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice.

The bills would award scholarships of about $6,500 to low-income students assigned to the state’s worst performing schools. The first year, 5,000 students could receive the vouchers; in the second year, 7,500; in the third year, 10,000, and in the fourth and all following years, 20,000.

One version of the bill allows students who qualify for free and reduced-price lunches, based on family income, to qualify for vouchers if they are assigned to a school that falls in the lowest performing 5 percent of the state’s schools.

Another version removes the income requirements, and opens the program to students in the lowest performing 10 percent of schools if scholarships are still available after students in the lowest 5 percent have had their first pick.

“Most students in those schools are low-income, but it’s a great benefit because it’ll be easier for parents to understand if they’re eligible for the program or not, and it will allow some people who are lower-middle-income to still take advantage of the program,” Linn said. “It would be easier for the administration and Department of Education to administer as well.”

Either way, it’s a step in the right direction,” said Kara Kerwin, president of Center for Education Reform.

If the program passes, it would be first private school choice program in the state, where there’s high demand for options in education.

“If you look at some of the waitlists for charter schools, it’s phenomenal. People camp out and are signing up for these things,” Linn said. “The demand for choice is there.”

Contact Mary C. Tillotson at mtillotson@watchdog.org.

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