Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam elaborated on his education initiatives in his State of the State speech Monday night to the Tennessee General Assembly. In doing so, Haslam defended a bill filed by Tennessee State Senator Mark Norris, a Republican from Collierville, TN, that establishes the Tennessee Choice and Opportunity Scholarship Program. Under this program, 5,000 state-funded, private school vouchers would be awarded during the 2013-2014 school year to low-income students who attend a public school that ranks in the bottom 5% of Tennessee public schools in overall achievement. The bill calls for a gradual increase in the number of vouchers each year until it caps at 20,000 vouchers awarded during the 2016-2017 school year and beyond. Haslam touted that Tennessee increased state funding for public schools by 12% during fiscal year 2012, which he says was the second largest increase in the country, and seemed to use this as a defense of the voucher program by indicating that the state would not be draining resources from the public schools to implement the program.
We haven’t seen a voucher bill filed in Arkansas yet, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see one soon. Though the constitutionality of these programs has been frequently challenged, at least one school voucher program has been upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court. In Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, 536 U.S. 639 (2002), the Court ruled that a voucher program in Ohio designed to give students stuck in failing inner-city Cleveland public schools the opportunity to attend another school, either public or private, did not violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. The Court was satisfied that the program had a secular purpose and was neutral in all respects of religion, though most of the students participating in the program had used the state-funded voucher to enroll in religiously-affiliated private schools.