TN school vouchers could include public, private school choices

10:34 AM, Nov 26, 2012   |    comments
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By Joey Garrison | The Tennessean

As state lawmakers and members of a Gov. Bill Haslam-appointed task force consider the scope of a possible school voucher program in Tennessee, talks aren't limited to using public dollars for private schooling.

Rather, under one scenario designed to expand choice further, low-income students enrolled in struggling schools could attend higher-performing public schools across town, outside their home districts and -- if need be -- across county lines. Per-pupil state education funds would follow a student from his or her zoned school to their new school, private or public, wherever it might be.

"If we're going to do the private choice, we might as well be able to do the public choice," said state Rep. Harry Brooks, R-Knoxville, who sits on the governor's nine-member voucher task force, which after months of meetings is set to release its final recommendations to Haslam this week.

"My vision on the 'public-to-public' is a bigger vision than the school three blocks away," Brooks said at the panel's final meeting on Nov. 13, using as an example students at Memphis City Schools having the opportunity to enroll in Shelby County Schools, even if the two systems weren't slated to formally merge. "My vision is that if you're in a county with four systems, you could go from 'System A' to 'System B.' My vision is that if you're in a small county with one high school that's failing, you could go to the neighboring county."

A public-choice piece might not necessarily have the blessing of the voucher task force in its final report -- but that wouldn't automatically dismiss it as a possibility, either.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman has said the panel, appointed last December, reached a "consensus" on some areas while still recognizing a "wide range of opinions" concerning other voucher elements. Final recommendations will reflect this. Ultimately, Haslam's administration and the Republican-controlled state legislature would be the ones hammering out specifics while drafting voucher legislation during the next session.

Best outcomes

Already, some in the pro-voucher camp seem to favor the idea of using what they label "opportunity scholarships" to attend public schools in other districts.

"The purpose of the opportunity scholarship is for children to attend the school where they and their parents think they would have the best outcome," said state Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, who sponsored unsuccessful voucher legislation last year with state Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown. "That could be at a private school. It could be at a public school.

"So, I think it would be important to give them that opportunity to choose the best fit for them."

Asked whether that would include a school in a different county, Dunn said: "You should be able to do that. Sometimes things aren't simple for bureaucrats, but if it's good for kids, we should strive as much as possible to make it happen."

In special circumstances, students in Tennessee attend schools in counties where they don't reside. Metro Nashville's Harris-Hillman Special Education School, for example, has opened its doors to students from outside Davidson County. In addition, under a rarely used provision in the federal No Child Left Behind law, Tennessee students in failing schools can transfer to other schools within the same district. This remains an option even though the federal government approved Tennessee's waiver from the majority of the law's provisions.

Schools, not just students, get choice

What's new in the ongoing voucher conversations would be a more expansive public-choice policy and the flow of funds that would result.

A rough draft of the task force's final report references a model in Louisiana in which high-performing public schools -- rated as A or B -- are eligible to accept opportunity scholarship students just as private schools are. Panel members have said students eligible for vouchers should be from low-income families and perhaps also come from low-performing schools -- the bottom 5, 10 or 15 percent of lowest-performing schools in Tennessee, for example.

Identical criteria would apply for allowing use of scholarship funds to attend other public schools.

Along with these considerations, task force members have discussed two components that would likely limit the number of students a public-choice model would serve: A student's new district would need to have available seating. More significantly, the same destination school district could choose whether to participate on the front end.

Williamson County Schools, which borders historically struggling Metro Nashville Public Schools, might seem like a natural place for Davidson County students to target under the proposal. But superintendents of both districts oppose a plan that would enable students to jump districts, and Williamson's leader wouldn't recommend it participate.

"It's a train wreck waiting to happen," said Mike Looney, superintendent of Williamson County Schools, who has followed talks about the idea over the last year. "I cannot see, based on our current structure of funding in the state of Tennessee, how that would be possible."

Though the governor's task force has reached a consensus that low-income students be the focus of any voucher program, it has failed to find accord on a number of areas, include the dollar amount of the voucher.

Funding formula

Some argue the same funding formula used for charter schools should extend to vouchers, whereby a combination of state and local dollars follow a student to his new school. The level of state funding, however, differs for each county, meaning some counties, Williamson and Davidson included, are required to match with more local dollars than others.

"There's a disparity between state dollars that would follow the kids, and you would be expecting local taxpayers to pick up the balance," Looney said of including an out-of-county public option to a voucher law. He added: "From my perspective, it fails all rational tests at this point in time."

Even if funding weren't an issue, Looney wouldn't recommend his school board opt into the plan. "Honestly, we struggle to keep up with the growth that we have, much less take kids from districts that surround us."

Metro Director of Schools Jesse Register, who wasn't aware of discussions on public school choice, expressed concerns over funding and capacity issues of surrounding counties. He also suggested using vouchers to attend public schools in different districts could lead to "white flight" from urban counties. Given the different funding requirements of each counties, he called the scenario a "nightmare" politically.

"If you think about some counties that have five schools systems in one county -- very small districts -- then you can really see how complicated that would get," Register said. "Around us, most all of the districts are pretty good sized, and I don't see it as quickly an issue here as it would be for a small county."

The Metro school board and the boards of Knoxville, Chattanooga and Memphis, Tennessee's four largest districts, approved resolutions last year opposing the voucher plan under consideration.

Privately, some stakeholders question the political wisdom of including a public schools component in a first-ever voucher program for private schools -- an item controversial in its own right.

During discussions this year, task members have routinely debated the importance of educational choice as it relates to the overarching goal of improving academic outcomes. An offshoot of that question involves just how far to broaden choice.

"If we focus the conversation around the opportunity for parents to make a choice for their child's education, that includes private and public," said Mary McDonald, former superintendent of Memphis Catholic Dioceses and a voucher task force member.

"There are no choices right now if you're in a certain ZIP code or a certain area of the city," she said. "There are no choices if you're in a certain economic demographic."

But others question the logic of expanding choice as an end. Indya Kincannon, a Knox County school board member on the task force, on multiple occasions pressed her peers about using vouchers to attend schools in other states. She doesn't support doing so, but has introduced the analogy to make a point.

"If the idea is for the money associated with a particular student to follow the student to wherever their families think is best for them academically, then why shouldn't it follow that they can take that across state lines to Virginia, North Carolina or Georgia?

"It's the same principle," she said. "If we don't think that's OK, then why would it be OK to do it at private schools?"

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