Task Force Frames Sticky Debate Over School Vouchers

A state task force on school vouchers handed its findings to the governor Thursday. Lawmakers could soon take up the matter of how, and whether, to divert public-school money so poor kids can instead go to private schools.

The task force says a vouchers program should specifically target poor kids, and participating schools should accept vouchers as payment in full, instead of possibly charging parents some tuition as well. But the report (PDF) also left some big questions for the governor and lawmakers to wrangle over next year.

Questions like, How many students would the program take on to begin with? And, How much money per student would it hand to private schools? Member Indya Kincannon, a critic of vouchers with the Coalition of Large School Systems, worries some poor kids in the program might still lack transportation to private schools.

“The most disadvantaged kids – the target of this effort – would not be able in most cases to transport themselves. If you offer something but don’t give people access, then you might as well not offer it.”

Last year the state Senate passed a bill to bring vouchers to the state’s four biggest counties, but it stalled in the House. Sponsor Brain Kelsey (R-Germantown) has said next year he hopes to expand on his old draft. Kelsey was on the task force, as was Ron Zimmer, a Vanderbilt-Peabody professor of public policy and education. He says vouchers come with some push-and-pull.

For instance, backers may want to make private schools widely accessible. But Zimmer says the added cost of transportation could turn off others who want vouchers to cheaply improve test scores.

“So you have all these considerations in terms of outcomes that you want to emphasize. I’m sure there’s going to be a tough political process going forward in terms of negotiating these different goals.”

While Governor Bill Haslam hasn’t said if he’ll back a vouchers proposal, he expects lawmakers will bring it up soon.

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