Ron Ramsey, the Speaker of the Tennessee State Senate, has predicted that the next legislative session will see the Senate consider the proposal for a limited voucher program. The version under discussion was introduced in both bodies in 2011, and has already been passed in the TN House, but the Senate had delayed a vote until the next session because the lawmakers needed extra time to study its implications.
Governor Bill Haslam has appointed a panel to analyze the bill in detail and has asked the Senate to delay the action on it until 2013. The panel is scheduled to present its findings and conclusions this fall. If the panel recommends approval and Haslam backs it, Ramsey feels sure that some form of a voucher program will become law in the state next year.
"In my area in Northeast Tennessee, there's one private school, I think in Sullivan County, so it will not be much of a factor there. But in areas where the school systems are less than stellar, shall we say — in Davidson County and in Shelby County — then vouchers will be used," said Ramsey, R-Blountville.
Ramsey added that he anticipated that his body will work with both the governor and the Speaker of the House to come up with some kind of compromise plan for a pilot program, that will, initially, be limited to urban areas where there's a bigger selection of private schools voucher recipients can choose from. He didn't feel that suburban and rural communities, that frequently have very few private schools in their districts, will much benefit from vouchers, at least to start with.
Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, is a leading legislative proponent of vouchers. His last bill on the issue allowed students eligible for free and reduced-price lunch in the four largest counties to use one-half the money their local public school system spends per pupil to pay tuition at any school that admits them. That would have been about $5,400 per year in Memphis.
This hasn't been the only education reform development in the state in the past year. As part of the conditions for its No Child Left Behind waiver, granted last year, In March, Tennessee adopted a new school evaluation program that will make assessments based on how many of its students achieve a 3% learning gain over the previous academic year. The system, which went into effect in April, replaced one that marked each school as either successful or failing, depending on the percentage of its students who hit the benchmarks outlined by the NCLB.