published Thursday, January 23rd, 2014

Republican lawmakers push new school voucher bill to Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam

NASHVILLE — Republican state lawmakers have proposed a school voucher bill they hope will be acceptable to Gov. Bill Haslam, who has repeatedly said he favors a more limited version of the program that gives parents another option for educating their children.

Sen. Brian Kelsey of Germantown said Thursday that he spoke with the Republican governor Wednesday night about the proposal, which is co-sponsored by Sen. Dolores Gresham of Somerville and is supported by Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey of Blountville.

Haslam's proposal is limited to students from low-income families attending the bottom 5 percent of failing schools. He had that measure withdrawn last year when Senate Republicans sought to expand to a larger number of children.

The measure now being proposed by Republicans would affect students attending the bottom 10 percent of failing schools.

Kelsey didn't elaborate on his conversation with Haslam, only saying that the governor wants to see a bill pass this year.

"Sen. Gresham and I have gone a long way toward offering a compromise that we hope fits within the governor's desires for a bill that he would like to see this year," he said.

Haslam later reiterated to reporters that he's sticking with his legislation, but that other lawmakers have a right to propose to their own voucher bills.

"One of our concerns last year was our bill kept trying to be amended," he said. "And so when Sen. Kelsey told me he was going to file that, I said ... that's your right. You guys pursue that and see what you can get done."

Under the new proposal, the program would be opened to anyone interested if the entire number isn't filled by students from low-income families attending failing schools.

"I think that's a good compromise," Ramsey said.

House Speaker Beth Harwell said she's not familiar with the details and cost projections of the latest proposal, but said she agrees with the governor's idea to take a measured approach.

"The governor wants to make sure the program is successful and will give us what we think it's going to give us before he goes any further," said Harwell, R-Nashville.

Democrats have been among the most vocal critics of vouchers — or so-called "opportunity scholarships" — which give parents the option to move a child from a failing public school to a private school, with the state providing funds for tuition. They say more funds should be given to public school systems to educate students rather than private schools.

However, Senate Minority Leader Jim Kyle said he would support a limited voucher proposal like the governor's.

"I think the governor is leading us on the correct path," said the Memphis Democrat. "Let's get the process down, and then see where we go."

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