The details of a forthcoming proposal from Gov. Bill Haslam for a school voucher system are yet to be seen, but already, private school administrators are speculating whether or not they'll choose to opt in to the system if they have the chance.
Monday, Haslam publicly stated for the first time that he planned to introduce legislation forming an "opportunity scholarship" program for low-income students enrolled in disadvantaged schools. Using taxpayer money, vouchers would likely be able to be put toward tuition at a nearby private school, of the student and their family's choice.
With numerous implications stemming from a voucher program, supporters and opponents of the idea offer wide-ranging reasons why the system does or does not work. Although supporters often say that vouchers offer disadvantaged students the opportunity to pursue the best education possible, detractors argue that voucher programs siphon away much-needed funds from public schools.
O.J. Morgan, head of The Bright School, said that although it is difficult to form a current opinion on the governor's decision because of its lack of specifics, he imagined many private school administrators and board members would be concerned about the possibility for a state-run voucher program to give government officials a foot in the door at institutions that prize their independence above all else.
"It's hard to know what to say," Morgan said. "What's most important to us, and to most private schools, is our mission—what we're trying to achieve with our students and with our parents. And I think that they're reluctant to become beholden to another agency that might place restrictions on what's the best education for a child. We won't do anything that might inhibit us from being as independent as we can."
Morgan added that his school, along with several other private schools in the area, already offer a range of financial aid scholarships to a high percentage of their students. He added that were a voucher system to be implemented, he would hope that it would not "mark" participating students in such a way that it could potentially detract from their admission into a school or experience there.
"I think independent schools would probably want to be blind to whether someone is being financed through a voucher system, given a scholarship by a church or being funded by their great-aunt in Saskatoon," he said. "That shouldn't matter. What matters is determining whether or not the child is appropriate for the school and maintaining independence. There are choices out there to be had without vouchers."
Randy Tucker, headmaster for Girls Preparatory School, also emphasized that a decision to opt in to a voucher program would not be his choice, but rather that of the school's board. The headmaster also cited the school's independence as a primary concern for those who would make such a decision.
"We really value our independence," Tucker said. "And there has been a long concern that if we began accepting vouchers, then we could begin losing our independence. If the state began paying us through vouchers, then the state could begin telling us what to do with our students. But by our name, we're an independent school. That's what the parents of our students seek out—we don't answer to a legislature."
Tucker added his thought that schools similar to his would be concerned about the long-term viability of funding a school voucher program because of his school's higher-than-average tuition costs. Like The Bright School, GPS also offers financial aid packages to a high percentage of its students, but Tucker worried how additional students might affect operating costs.
"We're just like every other independent school; we have to pay our bills," he said. "We can't offer as much aid as we'd like—it's a tenuous business model as it is. We're truly not-for-profit, and we make up our differences in things like charitable support, our annual fund and summer programs."
The governor is expected to outline details of his plan in the weeks leading up to or at his annual State of the State address, which is scheduled for Jan. 28 in Nashville.