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School Choice Could Become a Reality for Tennessee School Children

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Unread 12.01.11, 02:22 PM
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School Choice Could Become a Reality for Tennessee School Children

On 12.01.11 08:30 AM posted by Rachel Sheffield

A most remarkable “year of school choice” may be edging to a close, but the momentum for school choice is far from over. On the heels of Indiana’s success, states like Tennessee are looking to introduce educational options for their students in the upcoming year.

The discussion surrounding school choice isn’t a new one for the state, but as the Education Action Group (EAG) reports, the success of Indiana in passing the most expansive school choice program in the nation—one which has attracted nearly 4,000 students in its first year of operation—has boosted the push in Tennessee.

“From our perspective, (Indiana’s voucher success) contributes to our momentum. It shows this is going on in other states and if we want to be a leader in education, it’s something we need to pass,” says Ryan Turbeville of the Beacon Center, a Tennessee-based research organization.

Last year, the Tennessee state Senate passed school choice legislation dubbed the Equal Opportunity Scholarship Act. The proposal will be up for consideration in the state House and is “expected to be a controversial and hotly discussed issue when the [Tennessee] General Assembly reconvenes in January,” according to EAG.

The program would provide scholarships for students from “some of the state’s poorest families in Nashville, Chattanooga, Knoxville and Memphis” to attend a private school of their choice, reports The Tennessean. Specifically, it would “offer vouchers to students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch programs because of family income—$42,000 for a family of four—or who attend failing schools.”

Eligible students would receive half of the amount of per-pupil education funding from their local school districts to attend a school of choice, resulting in a major cost savings for districts, which would be allowed to hold on to the remaining funding.

Tennessee’s plan would probably begin more modestly than Indiana’s, as Turbeville notes that Tennessee’s “political climate likely will necessitate a smaller program as a starting point.” Nonetheless, the program, if implemented, will be a promising step in the right direction.

For example, Republican Lieutenant Governor Ron Ramsey stated, “If you have children trapped in failing schools and their parents don’t have the means to allow them to go to an alternative, then we need to start with a small pilot project [in the four largest systems]…and be able to allow those students to have some choice.”

School board member Kenneth Whalum of Shelby County is highly supportive of the proposal, asserting that the proposal should go “further than it does”: “I wish every dime of public money followed the children. I don’t see any downside to that.”

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