NASHVILLE - A Republican-backed school voucher program for low-income students in the state's four largest counties, including Hamilton, is dead for the year.
The House version of the bill, which passed the Senate last week, was sent Wednesday to a summer study committee by House Education Subcommittee members, a move that effectively kills it for this year.
A short while earlier, the bill's sponsor, Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, had finished outlining elements of the measure, which the state's five large school systems oppose.
Then, House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, entered the hearing room and quietly asked the chairman of the full Education Committee, Rep. Richard Montgomery, R-Sevierville, to call for a recess.
Members agreed and Republicans in the GOP-controlled committee left the room. After they were gone, a Democrat smiled and made a gesture of an arm getting twisted.
The Republicans later returned and Dunn said "there is a lot of interest" in the bill and he was ready to answer questions or "however you want to direct this piece of legislation."
Rep. Kevin Brooks, R-Cleveland, called the bill a "very important piece of legislation. I do think it is a very important thing that we need to take a long look at."
He moved to send it to a summer study committee, saying it needs to be looked at "properly."
Montgomery seconded the motion, and the bill was shuttled off for study.
Later, McCormick maintained that no arm twisting was involved.
"It'd be more accurate to say 'counted votes,'" he said. "I think it kind of caught me by surprise a little bit how far the bill had gone [in discussion] ... and I wanted to make sure that when we do that kind of a program, we do it right - we do it slow and careful."
The state has already approved or is in the process of approving several education reform bills, including one that makes it tougher for teachers to win tenure, he said. Another bill opens up charter schools to more students.
Dunn told the panel earlier that the bill would let children from low-income families have an "opportunity to attend a school that meets their own needs."
The bill applied to students eligible for free or reduced-price lunches because of their parents' income. Half the public funding would follow a child to private or parochial schools and half would remain with public schools.
Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Jim Scales has called the voucher bill an "attack on public education."
Lee Harrell with the Tennessee School Boards Association said that under the federal No Child Left Behind provisions and standards, if a child is failing or if a school is failing, local schools already "have to come up with options and alternative schools for that child to attend, so that option is there."
"We just worry about the privatization of public education and the movement from public schools to private schools," Harrell said.
After the bill was delayed, Dunn speculated that some legislators might have grown fatigued over all of the other education changes working their way through the General Assembly.
"Some people felt we've had so much education reform, we've spent so much time and energy on it, that may they may feel a little spent now so over the summer we can recharge our batteries," he said.
In other action Wednesday:
* A key House sponsor of a Republican-backed bill seeking to let Tennessee join a proposed interstate health care compact says the bill won't be pursued until next year.
Democrats have seen the bill as a rejection of President Barack Obama's health care reform. The bill sought to let states form alliances and take control of federal health spending and programs.
Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal recently signed a similar bill passed by lawmakers there.
Tennessee Rep. Glen Casada, R-College Grove, said he took the bill off notice because its primary sponsor, Rep. Mark White, R-Memphis, had a death in his family and time is running out in the House Health and Human Resources Committee.
"It's just going to have to wait until next year," Casada said. "Time has caught us."
Democrats have criticized the bill on several fronts, saying it could put the Republican-led General Assembly in charge of Medicare in Tennessee.
Last week, McCormick told reporters he didn't think the legislation was a "real issue" because it would have required congressional approval.
"It's not going to happen," he said. "The federal government's not going to turn Medicare over to the states."