published Tuesday, April 15th, 2014

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam's school voucher bill fails to pass in session

NASHVILLE — Gov. Bill Haslam's proposal to create a program that gives parents the option to move a child from a failing public school to a private school has once again failed to pass.

The school voucher legislation was withdrawn from the House Finance Committee on Tuesday because the lawmaker carrying the measure for the governor said there weren't enough votes.

"Today the children lost, the system won," Rep. Bill Dunn told reporters after the vote.

Last year, the Republican governor pulled a more limited version after attempts by members of his own party and other voucher proponents to expand it.

This year, Haslam did propose a slight expansion that was palatable in the Senate. However, the House version was broader and opposed to by many of the House members.

Haslam originally sought to limit the vouchers to students from low-income families attending the bottom 5 percent of failing schools.

Under the version that advanced in the Senate, if there are not enough students for the available slots, then eligibility would be opened to low-income students in districts that have a school in the bottom 5 percent.

The companion bill sought to expand eligibility to the bottom 10 percent of failing schools if slots are left.

Even though he strayed slightly from his original legislation, Haslam said his proposal this year was still a limited — or measured — approach for vouchers, or so-called "opportunity scholarships" in which the state provides funds for tuition.

Haslam spokeswoman Alexia Poe said the governor has always known that passing the legislation would be tough because "some legislators wanted a broader bill and some didn't want a bill at all," but he's nonetheless disappointed the latest version had to be withdrawn.

"The governor has said all along that the proposal wasn't a silver bullet but a piece of a larger strategy to offer more options for choice to families," Poe said. "The governor is disappointed that a bill that made it further than any other voucher proposal has didn't make it to the finish line."

When asked why the proposal has had trouble, Dunn alluded to it being an election year and that lawmakers are probably being influenced by constituents — particularly in rural areas — against the legislation.

"We're now in campaign season, and we just have to recognize that," said the Knoxville Republican.

Critics of vouchers say more funds should be given to public school systems to educate students rather than private schools.

"Taking money away from school systems in any fashion or form, especially with budgets cratering as they are because the state can't contribute what it needs to, is a very bad idea," said Jim Wrye, chief lobbyist for the Tennessee Education Association, the state's largest teachers' union.

Nevertheless, Dunn said he believes the legislation will be back next year, even though he didn't specify in what form.

"I'm not going to give up on the kids, and I'm hoping that the governor won't either," he said.

House Speaker Beth Harwell also believes the legislation will be revisited.

"I suspect that is an issue some people will want to continue to examine," said the Nashville Republican. "It might give us additional time to look and see the success of this program in other states."

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