Three days after delivering his annual State of the State address to lawmakers in Nashville, Gov. Bill Haslam was in Chattanooga Thursday, rehashing key items of his speech and $32.7 billion budget plan to the Chattanooga Downtown Rotary Club.
Much of Haslam's 30-minute address focused on his continuing efforts to reform education, emphasizing its links to business and economic development.
"We're making really substantial progress in K-12 education, but we need to. We've been running too low for too long," Haslam said. "Employers across the state have said, 'The key thing for us is, are you going to provide us with the workforce we need?'"
Haslam commented on his goals to fully fund the state's basic education program, introduce new online higher education initiatives and increase money available for student assistance. But at no point Thursday did the governor refer to one of the most controversial items of his education agenda for the upcoming year—a bill to create and implement a school voucher system for low-income students in Tennessee's lowest-performing schools.
On Monday, the governor filed a package of 59 bills for the upcoming legislative session, including the Tennessee Choice and Opportunity Scholarship Act. The bill would allow for eligible students to receive a voucher—or "opportunity scholarship"—to use toward tuition at a participating private school.
As proposed by Haslam, the program will be limited to only 5,000 students in its first year, with the total eligibility being increased to 20,000 students by 2016. In order to qualify, students would need to be both on a free or reduced lunch program and also attending one of the lowest-performing schools across the state—also known as priority schools.
Answering questions from reporters following his speech, Haslam said he understood opposition coming from people who were concerned a voucher program might pull away much-needed funding from low-performing schools. He said that costs of the voucher program would be offset by additional funds being designated for the state's priority schools.
"Now, I realize there's a passion on both sides; some people are thinking, 'Well, if you do that, then you're taking money away from public schools,' but those particular schools—the bottom 5 percent—we've actually put an extra $37 million into the budget," Haslam said. "So we feel like we've given them the right support, and we should also give choice for parents for students in those situations."
The $37 million referred to by the governor is actually $47 million—according to the text of his State of the State address. During his speech Monday, Haslam said an additional $9 million would be added to the state budget for the lowest 5 percent of performing schools, for a total of $47 million.
"Not only are we not draining resources from them, we're giving them additional support," he said.
Hamilton County is home to six priority schools, including Brainerd High School, Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy, Dalewood Middle School, Orchard Knob Elementary School, Orchard Knob Middle School and Woodmore Elementary School.
In the past, Hamilton County Superintendent Rick Smith has spoken out against the idea of vouchers.
The governor added that his intention for the program was to "wade in" with phases over time, in case the idea was found to be unsuccessful.
"We thought it was wise to wade in, to see the impact it had without too much of a shock to the system," he said. "And then if it is working, if it's providing kids with more opportunities, if it's showing that it's actually not hurting but helping the existing school system, then we can grow it. Right now, in the first year, it applies to 5,000 of a million students—which is one half of 1 percent."