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VOL. 36 | NO. 45 | Friday, November 09, 2012

School voucher recommendations don't include cost

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NASHVILLE (AP) - A task force appointed by Gov. Bill Haslam to study how to start a school voucher program has finalized its recommendations but couldn't reach consensus on many key aspects, such as the cost of each voucher or the scale of the program.

After the final task force meeting Tuesday, Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman said even without agreement on all aspects, the recommendations will provide the governor with options if he wanted to establish a program.

A school voucher program, or an opportunity scholarship program, would use state and local education funds to allow students to transfer to better private or public schools. Haslam appointed the task force last year because he said the issue needed more study before any legislation is pursued.

"There are some areas where there is a pretty broad range of views on how to do it," Huffman said.

He, however, wouldn't give his personal opinion on whether Haslam should e stablish such a program in Tennessee.

"He is an extremely thoughtful leader when it comes to education and given a range of options, he will make wise decisions," he told reporters after the meeting.

The task force, which included lawmakers and representatives from private and public schools, discussed the final report that will be sent to the governor in two weeks.

The group did agree that a voucher program should be limited to low-income students and that private schools should be screened for eligibility and held accountable if they participate.

One of the biggest questions that the group debated was student eligibility. The range of options included qualifying based on income or the school's performance or some combination of both.

Mary McDonald, former superintendent for Memphis Catholic Dioceses, said the program shouldn't be limited to just moving children out of failing schools, but should also give parents a choice on their children's ed ucation, whether it's private or public school.

"I think academic outcome is absolutely the bottom line, but in that, what are the choices for my child, what are the choices for education?" she said. "There are no choices right now if you are in a certain area of the city or certain zip code."

The cost of the voucher was also still under debate, with members of the task force questioning whether it should be a fixed amount or varied based on the district or private tuition costs.

State Board of Education Executive Director Gary Nixon said he prefers a set amount.

"It's going to be a nightmare to administer if some kids get $8,000 and some get $12,000 and some get $4,000," he said. "There is no equity in that. It's based on your zip code."

The task force did come to a consensus that private schools would have to accept the voucher amount as payment in full and not be allowed to charge additional tuition, although the draft report noted that may li mit some private schools from participating.

Huffman said there was some agreement that a school voucher program should start out small to allow for evaluation before expanding the program, but offered no details on how many students or schools could be involved at the beginning.