Tennessee Governor Reiterates Interest In Policies To Promote Parent 'Choice'

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Tennessee's Gov. Lamar Alexander has urged local policymakers and school officials to consider ways to promote greater parental choice in public education.

The Governor had made known in recent months that he was considering the concept for Tennessee schools. Minnesota's Gov. Rudy Perpich has already moved forward with a detailed voucher proposal for upper-secondary pupils.

In his state-of-the-state address to the legislature earlier this month, Governor Alexander included introducing the idea of choice into the schools as one of four major challenges he said the state must address through the 1990's. Citing tax reform, improvements in transportation, and corrections reform, Governor Alexander also said the state should establish alternative methods of enrollment that would allow students to attend public schools in neighboring counties or across at-tendance zones within a district.

"The best way to increase parent involvement is to let parents choose the public--not the private--school their child attends," the Governor said, arguing that some districts have already made great strides in promoting a wider range of choices for parents. In Memphis, for example, parents "stand in line for hours" to enroll their children in one of the district's 27 optional programs, Governor Alexander said.

When parents have more choice and are not "coerced," they become "better informed about what schools are doing the best job and what demands additional improvements," said Keel Hunt, the Governor's education adviser.

Equal Funding, 'Supplements'

If alternative enrollment arrangements are developed on a wide scale, the state must ensure that every district has an equal amount to spend on each pupil, the Governor said. To that end, he has asked the state board of education to determine "what it ought to cost to give a child a basic education in Tennessee."

He said the state could assume more of the cost of education and argued that parents who were financially able would be willing to pay small "tuition supplements" for public schools if they had greater control over which schools their children attended. The state would have to provide the tuition for parents of children who could not afford to pay, Governor Alexander said.

Potential Drawbacks

There are several potential drawbacks to opening access across district and zone lines, the Governor acknowledged. These include the problem of maintaining racial balance in schools, paying for transportation, and providing equal opportunity for poor children.

But he said that no one should "assume that poor parents won't work hard to get their child to the school of their choice, even in another zone. The biggest problem in zoning is that poor children often get stuck in the worst schools."

No Immediate Legislation

Governor Alexander said he was not proposing school-choice legislation immediately because "there are enough big changes going on" with implementation of the state's massive school-reform program.

In Minnesota, by contrast, Governor Perpich last month sent to the legislature a personally crafted $21.8-million measure that would enable 11th- and 12th-grade students to travel across school-district lines to the schools of their choice. (See Education Week, March 6, 1985.)

The only new education legislation Mr. Alexander said he would introduce this session is a bill allowing elected school boards to hire their own administrative officers, including superintendents, who now are, by and large, officials elected by countywide ballot or by county commissions.

The Governor, who previously said he was opposed to a state income tax, stated in his address that he would endorse a flat-rate tax--with the approval of voters--if it contained language giving voters the power to reject any increase proposed by the legislature.

Vol. 04, Issue 26

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