Haslam's school voucher bill delayed

Friday, March 1, 2013, Vol. 37, No. 9

NASHVILLE (AP) — State Republicans are trying to decide between two competing proposals that would create a school voucher program in Tennessee.

Gov. Bill Haslam's measure had been scheduled to be heard Wednesday in the Senate Education Committee, but was delayed for two weeks.

Republican Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris of Collierville is gioding the proposal and told reporters outside the meeting that he wants to talk to the sponsors of the competing bill before moving forward.

The main difference between the two measures has to do with broadness.

Haslam's proposal would limit the program to 5,000 students in failing schools in the academic year that begins in August, and grow to 20,000 by 2016.

The other legislation seeks to broaden the number of students by not limiting participation to low-performing schools.

"It would open it up pretty dramatically," said Norris, adding what really concerns him is the support the expanded voucher program is getting outside the Legislature.

A national group advocating for a large-scale school voucher program in Tennessee is launching a massive media campaign to persuade lawmakers to expand the program proposed by Haslam.

An official familiar with the plans told The Associated Press last week that the state chapter of the American Federation for Children is spending $800,000 on broadcast television, cable and radio advertising — a vast amount for political advertising or issue advocacy in the state.

The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because the group has not made the amount public.

"I'm concerned about that in general," Norris said.

The Senate Education Committee did advance Haslam's proposal to tighten enrollment requirements at online-only schools. The measure was unanimously approved 9-0 and is similar to a proposal that's headed to the House floor.

The legislation would allow beginning online schools to start with an enrollment of 1,500 and continue to expand as long as they meet performance requirements. The measure originally sought to cap online school enrollment at 5,000.

Such schools became heavily scrutinized after reports of the low performance of Tennessee Virtual Academy, the state's only privately operated virtual school.

K12 Inc., the nation's largest publicly traded online education company, runs the academy for Union County public schools.

State officials have been questioning the K12 operation. Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman called its first-year test results "unacceptable."

State figures showed the academy fell into the bottom 11 percent of schools for student gains, as measured under the state's value-added assessment system. The cyber school scored a 1 on the 5-point scale.

However, Arika Trevino testified before Senate Education Committee on Wednesday that she has two children with disabilities enrolled in the Tennessee Virtual Academy and that the school has been an asset.

"I have one with asthma, and I have one with autism," said Trevino, who lives in Rutherford County. "And the virtual schools allow me to accommodate for their disabilities. I don't have to worry about the brick and mortar school ... not accommodating that."