Tennessee’s Haslam Floats Voucher Option, Re-thinking Ed

Boasting of Tennessee's ability to maintain levels of education funding while cutting taxes last year, Governor Bill Haslam devoted much of his annual State of the State speech to education priorities. Chas Sisk of The Tennessean reports that he also stirred up controversy with a brief reference to a voucher program for students in low-performing schools.

In his speech, Haslam said that not only has his state not cut funding for K-12 education, it has done better [transcript]:

Not only did we not cut funding, we had the second largest increase in state K-12 expenditures of all 50 states in fiscal year 2012. I'm not sure that Tennessee has ever been able to say that before. The average increase was nearly 3 percent. Ours grew almost 12 percent in state education funding.

The governor announced a $51 million initiative to help school districts transition to the new demands for technology, which can be extremely expensive. Another new grant is going to the School for the Deaf in Knoxville to build a new high school campus, and the TN legislature has also added flexibility to how schools evaluate teachers for tenure, adding more time to the evaluation period.

But the governor seemed aware of the point in his speech that would generate controversy. After opening his speech with an admonition to always consider whether the other guy might be right, he spoke of a new bill that would increase funding for private school vouchers. Without citing numbers, he defended the decision by saying that public schools most likely to lose students would not be hurt:

I've heard the argument that this kind of program will drain resources in the schools that need them the most, but we're focusing resources on those schools. Last year, we committed $38 million over three years to schools in the bottom 5 percent of the state. This year we're adding $9 million more. So we're investing $47 million, over and above annual funding, to those schools to help them improve. Not only are we not draining resources from them, we're giving them additional support.

Having pointed to the state's relative fiscal strength, Haslam added:

If we can help our lowest income students in our lowest performing schools, why wouldn't we?

The Tennessean cites newly-filed Senate Bill 196 as the source of the vouchers:

The measure, Senate Bill 196, calls for awarding 5,000 vouchers to low-income students in poorly performing schools in the 2013-2014 school year. The number would climb to 20,000 by 2016-2017.

Most of the governor's remarks were not as controversial. He celebrated better scores on annual assessments, pointing out that last year saw the largest gains ever. He praised teachers who show initiative to improve in their career paths.

On higher education, Haslam announced a new initiative to push the rate of college degrees (including Associate's) to 55% of state residents by 2025. He pointed to the state's change in funding to be not by enrollment, but by graduating students. By putting state college funding on a firmer footing, he said, the state has kept tuition increases to no more than 6% at four-year schools.

The governor also announced a new partnership with Western Governors University to create a "competency-based" online college program. He promised that the new "WGU Tennessee" will be,

"geared to the 800,000 adult Tennesseans that have some college credit but didn't graduate with an associate or four-year degree. The program is unique because of its competency-based curriculum but also because of an emphasis on mentors who guide those adults through the academic process."

He also promised expansion at two community colleges, Nashville State and Northeast State Community Colleges. The state's new funding will allow for expansion of laboratories, classrooms, and increased ties to advanced manufacturing.

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