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VOL. 39 | NO. 51 | Friday, December 18, 2015

School choice bills to highlight next legislative session

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NASHVILLE (AP) — Supporters of school choice say they plan to push for proposals that they argue allow parents to play a stronger role in how their children are educated in the legislative session that begins in January.

Over the past few years, measures that would create a school voucher program in Tennessee and allow parents to determine the fate of a failing public school have struggled to pass, mainly because of opposition from Democrats and advocates who argue more attention should be given to public schools. But both measures, particularly vouchers, are expected to be revived this session, and proponents are optimistic they'll fare better in 2016.

"All Tennessee students deserve a chance at a quality academic experience that best prepares them for a college or post-secondary education and a rewarding career," said Ted Boyatt, spokesman for StudentsFirst Tennessee, a leading advocate for the creation of a voucher program.

The proposed voucher program, or "opportunity scholarship," would let parents move a child from a failing public school to a private school with funding from the state.

Opponents of the voucher program and other school choice proposals say such measures draw attention and funding away from public schools capable of providing students with a good education if given adequate resources.

"Basically, vouchers ... do nothing to fix those schools where there may be legitimate problems that need to be addressed," said House Democratic Leader Craig Fitzhugh of Ripley.

But Gov. Bill Haslam has pushed for a voucher program and has even proposed legislation to create one. However, his legislation and similar measures have struggled because of attempts to expand eligibility instead of the more limited approach the Republican governor prefers.

Republican Sen. Brian Kelsey of Germantown, co-sponsor of a voucher bill in the upcoming session, has said he's optimistic the measure will succeed because the new chairman of the House finance subcommittee where the companion bill got stuck in the last session is also a co-sponsor of the legislation.

Rep. Harry Brooks, chairman of the House Education Administration and Planning Committee, said he'd like to see a limited voucher program in Tennessee, which he believes would benefit students.

"Where a child lives shouldn't determine the quality of education that they have an opportunity to be a part of," said Brooks, R-Knoxville.

Kelsey also is the sponsor of the so-called parent trigger legislation, which gives parents the ability to push for more choices if an individual school is failing. It failed to pass last year after Kelsey asked the Senate Finance Committee to place the measure on its 2016 calendar. The measure has now failed three years in a row.

State law currently allows 60 percent of parents to petition for a change to be made at a school.

Under the failed proposal, if 51 percent of parents at a school in the bottom 10 percent of failing schools believe a drastic change is needed, they could select from several "turnaround models," including a conversion to a charter school or changing administrators.

House sponsor John DeBerry, D-Memphis, recently told The Associated Press that he's not sure if he will try to pass the parent trigger bill in the upcoming session, but he supports the concept as well as other school choice proposals he says are "necessary ... to complete education reform."

"I believe it is a great idea," DeBerry said of the parent trigger legislation. "I believe it empowers the parents who oftentimes feel they're without a voice."

Boyatt said the measure is another school choice option StudentsFirst plans to support.

Another bill planned for the upcoming session seeks to equip parents with concise information about the performance of their child's school in the form of an A-F letter grade.

"Parents have a right to know and understand the basic facts about their child's school, and this legislation will help ensure they remain informed with clear and accurate data-driven information and ratings," Boyatt said.

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