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School vouchers raise big issues, need close study; Harwell says

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

By Clint Confehr

Senior Staff Writer

School vouchers raise tough constitutional questions, Tennessee House Speaker Beth Harwell says, acknowledging America's standard of equal treatment under the law.

"If you allow vouchers to follow a child to a Catholic school or a Baptist school, then you would be hard pressed to not allow that money to follow a child to a Muslim school as well," Harwell said.

In a recorded interview last week, the House speaker was asked about a proposal to let parents spend government money raised by taxes for public education, such as Marshall County schools, on private schools instead. School vouchers might be likened to coupons that parents could - if such a program is approved - spend to pay tuition for their children's education at charter or private schools, and possibly parochial schools.

Harwell was asked if it would it be appropriate to create a system of school vouchers that would permit parents to spend that tax money on tuition paid to a religious school.

"I'm sure that we will have to look at that," she replied. "The governor has a task force on vouchers - the whole program, to design one [program] ... that would reflect good public policy.

"I do believe that proponents of vouchers say the money should follow the student, the child," Harwell said. "The money doesn't belong to the system, but rather to the taxpayer."

Charter school advocates say charter schools should be available to students whose parents would rather they be educated there instead of city or county schools. Charter schools, however, are classified as public schools; in effect, a subcontracting of a government service. Vouchers could, if established, allow a portion of government money to be spent on private schools.

Harwell was asked: What if Islamic centers in Murfreesboro and Columbia start schools and Muslims want to spend vouchers to offset their cost of tuition charged by those schools? Separation of church and state wasn't part of the discussion. Harwell's response addressed America's requirement for equal treatment under the law.

"I think it would be a constitutional issue," Harwell said.

"It is one that we would have to weigh very carefully as a legislature."

Harwell noted the issue is politically charged when religion is part of the equation.

"I think that, in itself, causes real alarm in the halls of the legislature," she said after noting Islamic centers could establish schools. "Having said that, I think we will seriously look at vouchers.

"We're open to it," she continued. "Parents want choice and they want the best education for their child...

"All those concerns are valid ones, legitimate ones," Harwell said. "There is no easy answer."

Furthermore, it's still on the drawing board.

"There is not even ... legislation drafted that I'm aware of at this point in time," Harwell said Nov. 5. "We will not be back in touch until January" when lawmakers reconvene.

"Hopefully, we'll have something that will be right for our state."