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Voucher Model Taking Shape in Tennessee

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If Tennessee ends up becoming the next state to approve private school vouchers, it's likely that the work of a task force will have provided a key blueprint for that law.

Members of a panel appointed by Republican Gov. Bill Haslam have released a preliminary report with recommendations for creating a statewide voucher system—dubbed "opportunity scholarships" in the document. Those ideas are likely to give lawmakers in the state's GOP-led statehouse direction in shaping a private school choice plan.

The final version of the document is not expected to be released until next week, a spokesman for the governor said. But the initial recommendations offer some insights. At a glance, they seem to call for Tennessee officials to take a relatively cautious step into voucherland, with plenty of regulatory oversight, at least initially, than some of the more sweeping models that have been recently adopted in other states.

For instance, the task force recommends that eligibility to vouchers be limited to students from impoverished backgrounds. Private school choice programs in Indiana and Louisiana, by contrast, have relatively loose voucher eligibility requirements that allow families who could be considered middle-class to take part.

The task force also suggests that private schools be allowed to participate only if they take certain steps, such as agreeing to administer state or national norm-referenced exams (a requirement that is also a fixture in several voucher states). Another recommendation: Private schools would be required to accept the state-funded scholarship as the complete payment for tuition—rather than be allowed to charge eligible families additional money. The group also says there should be a strong system for evaluating the academic results and participation of students in the voucher system.

Haslam announced last year that he would create the panel after initial legislative efforts to launch a voucher model in Tennessee stalled, amid questions about the size and scope of any such program.

Members of the task force include Tennessee education Commissioner Kevin Huffman; Chris Barbic, superintendent of the Achievement School District, a state-run system designed to turn around low-performing schools; Gary Nixon, executive director of the state's board of education; state lawmakers and current and former public and private school officials.

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