NASHVILLE - Gov. Bill Haslam's school voucher proposal, which would affect Hamilton County schools, is headed for a Senate floor vote after clearing a key Senate hurdle today.
Senate Finance Committee members approved the revised measure on an 8-2 vote. The bill was delayed the House Budget Subcommittee.
Haslam had tried to limit the proposal to low-incomes families whose children attend the bottom 5 percent of the state's lowest performing public schools. Last year, he even jerked the bill from final consideration when senators sought to expand it.
But this year Haslam finally agreed to expand the bill, which would allow the use of public money to pay for vouchers to send students to private or religious schools.
If there aren't not enough students from the bottom five percent of schools to fill the initial 5,000 slots statewide, low-income families from other schools would be eligible in the five currently affected counties.
By year 4 of the program, 20,000 students could be going to private schools at public expense at an average cost of $6,400 per year.
Senate Minority Leader Jim Kyle, D-Memphis, objected to the bill, saying that vouchers will compete with public charter schools already greatly expanded by Haslam. All are drawing money away from traditional public schools, complained Kyle who asked where Tennessee public education is headed.
"We don't seem to have an end game," Kyle said. "We're starting down the road without knowing where we're going to end up."
Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman said the state's lowest performing schools, which have or will be placed in the state's Achievement School District, are "not afraid of the competition."
Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collerville, who is carrying the governor's bill, agreed with Kyle that there "has to be an end game.
"But," Norris added, "there also has to be a beginning."
The bill passed 8-2 with Kyle abstaining.