NASHVILLE - State senators on Thursday passed a Republican-backed school voucher program for low-income students in the state's four largest counties, including Hamilton.
The "Equal Opportunity Scholarships" bill passed on a largely partisan 18-10 vote. It could start moving in the House on Wednesday.
"I see it as an attack on public schools, and I see it as an attack on the large school systems," Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Jim Scales said Thursday night. Officials in Knox, Davidson and Memphis and Shelby County schools also opposed the bill.
Should the bill become law, Hamilton County schools would lose an estimated $4,600 in taxpayer support for each voucher student. Students would take that money with them to private or religious schools.
Scales questioned a situation in which public school teachers, schools and students are subject to tougher standards while possibly losing money to private and religious schools where standards are often unknown.
He estimated that 60.1 percent of local students qualify for federal free-and-reduced lunch programs and would be eligible for vouchers if the measure becomes law.
This is the first voucher bill known to clear either chamber. Its sponsor, Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, said his bill will "provide impoverished children with hope for a better education and choice in the school they attend."
"With this bill," Kelsey said, "children need no longer be victims of their own geography."
But Tennessee Education Association lobbyist Jerry Winters, whose group represents 52,000 public school teachers, said the public "ought to be outraged that 18 members of the state Senate voted for a blatant voucher bill which will drain much-needed funds from public education to private and parochial schools."
"I would hope that when the first tax dollar goes to a religious school, a lawsuit would be filed to question its constitutionality," Winters said.
Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga, said schools have fixed costs such as teachers, building maintenance, utilities, busing and other areas that are virtually impossible to cut.
Berke said recent bipartisan cooperation to reform education has given way with Republicans controlling the General Assembly.
"Today what we see is not bipartisanship and a way forward but a way backward - a look back to the ideas that have made no tracks over the past 30 years," Berke said. "Each time we do something like this we are not focused on providing better education for our children. We're instead focused on these divisive ideas which lead us nowhere."
Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, a co-sponsor of the bill, praised it to reporters later.
He said it will provide "opportunity scholarships for parents who have their children trapped in a failing school but don't have the means to take them anywhere else."
Sen. Roy Herron, D-Dresden, however, contended the bill will send taxpayer money to private schools, many of which have no government oversight.
Potentially, he said, an Islamist group could create a taxpayer-backed "Osama Bin Laden" school that could teach anti-American views.
House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, said vouchers could help education.
"What I hear from every educator who really truly cares, they say, 'Give us one more tool in our toolbox, one more option for a child,'" she said.
She said her three children attend different schools "because children learn differently. Why take that option away? If it can help a child, let's pursue it."
The House version is scheduled to come up Wednesday in the Education Subcommittee.
House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, expressed some doubts about the timing.
"The scheduling works against it this year," he said. "Certainly we want to make sure it's done right before we push it all the way through."
Ramsey, however, said he would press House leaders to move on the bill.