NASHVILLE -- Tennessee needs to give parents better options when it comes to improving the education of their children, according to a national organization that examines education policies in each of the 50 states.
StudentsFirst released its inaugural report card Monday.
Eric Lerum, the vice president of national policy for the Sacramento, Calif.-based group, said the group ranked Tennessee 11th among other states.
He said the state has "been on a pretty solid path of enacting reforms during the last several years," but said "there's still a lot of work to do."
Tennessee became one of two states to first receive federal Race to the Top funding about three years ago and has made key reforms, particularly in the area of teacher quality.
Two key policies the state still needs to implement, however, are a measure that would allow parents to decide the fate of a struggling school -- the so-called parent trigger -- and the creation of a school-voucher program, which backers are calling the "opportunity scholarship program."
Legislation for both is expected to be taken up during the 108th Tennessee General Assembly, which convenes Tuesday.
Under the parent-trigger proposal, if 51 percent of parents at a school in the bottom 20 percent of failing schools believe that a drastic change is needed, they can then select from several "turnaround models." For instance, they may want to convert it to a charter school, change the administrators or just close the school.
"Right now parents don't have a whole lot of power," Lerum said. "So if you've got a board of education or district administration that, for whatever reason, just isn't showing the will to ... actually turn around a school, this changes the dynamic because this gives the parent some power to do something about it."
A school-voucher program would use state and local education funds to allow students to transfer to better private or public schools.
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam appointed a task force to study how to start a voucher program because he said the issue needed more study before any legislation is pursued. The task force submitted its recommendations in November.
Last month, Haslam told reporters that he has yet to decide if his administration will take the lead on a bill to create a school-voucher program.
Lerum said the state of Louisiana was ranked No. 1 in the group's report mainly because it has a voucher program.
"Tennessee needs to have something in place that gives parents an option to find the better school for their kids," he said.
Lerum said Tennessee should also look into statewide authorization of charter schools, something Haslam is already considering.
The Republican governor had previously said that he wanted to see the current system of charter-school authorization stand for a few years before deciding whether the state should take over deciding whether applicants make the grade.
But he told reporters in September that those considerations might be accelerated after the Metro Nashville school board defied an order by the state Board of Education to approve a school proposed by Phoenix-based Great Hearts Academies.
Great Hearts had appealed to the state after being denied twice by the city school board over concerns that the charter school planned to draw from affluent white families, rather than to cultivate a more diverse student body.
As a result of the board's action, the state decided to withhold $3.4 million from the public school system in Nashville.
Tim Melton, vice president of legislative affairs for StudentsFirst, told reporters during a conference call Monday that the report card allows states to see what's working in other states and serves as a long-term blueprint for legislators and education officials.
"We really need to build a thoughtful process within the state that's going to carry on beyond the legislators, beyond the current governor, beyond the current education commissioner and create something systematic and strategic in the state," he said. "This has given us a clear road map."
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