Bill Haslam will not budge on opposing the expansion of school vouchers

photo The Tennessee State Capitol in downtown Nashville.

CLOSER TO HOMEStudents at these Hamilton County schools would be eligible for vouchers under the governor's plan: Brainerd High, Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy, Dalewood Middle, Orchard Knob Elementary, Orchard Knob Middle and Woodmore Elementary.

NASHVILLE - Gov. Bill Haslam is prepared to withdraw his limited school voucher proposal from the Legislature if Senate Republicans carry out current plans to expand it, its sponsor says.

"It won't be expanded, because I'll withdraw it," said Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville.

Norris said this isn't a case of brinkmanship on Haslam's part. He said he has sponsored "hundreds of bills" for the governor "and he always works with the General Assembly."

But Norris said that Haslam "filed exactly what he thought was appropriate" in light of "all the other education reforms" he has implemented since taking office in 2011.

Last week, Haslam reminded reporters his plan came out of a yearlong task force headed by his education commissioner, Kevin Huffman.

"It's not like we're people who say it's just our way or the highway, the Legislature shouldn't have input," Haslam said. He noted he has agreed to lawmakers' proposed changes in areas such as limiting lawsuit damage awards.

"On this issue we really have worked hard to say this is where we really think the right place is," Haslam said. "We think if somebody thinks something different, they should run their own bill."

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Haslam's plan targets allow lower-income parents with children in public schools whose achievement scores are in the bottom 5 percent. The plan would let parents whose incomes are below $42,643 for a family of four use state and local tax revenue to pay tuition at private schools. It starts with 5,000 students in the school year that begins in August and increases to 20,000 in the 2016 academic year.

But Senate Education Committee Chairman Dolores Gresham, R-Somerville, and others want to go further, faster and higher.

Gresham's plan lifts the income eligibility limit for so-called "opportunity scholarships" to about $75,000, and it doesn't cap the number of students who could participate.

Critics, including Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Rick Smith, say such programs divert public money to private entities and strip public schools of badly needed money.

Gresham had readied an amendment for her own bill but last week put the measure off and stands ready to amend Haslam's proposal.

Republican Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey of Blountville, favors a broader bill.

But noting Haslam's concerns, he told reporters last week, "I'm letting the committee system play out on that. Whatever happens, happens."

He said Haslam's bill is included in the proposed budget.

"So if you're going to put an amendment on, it probably needs to be on the governor's bill," he said.

He acknowledged the possibility that Haslam could yank his bill.

"I could vote for either bill when it comes to the floor," Ramsey said. "Obviously my preference is a more expansive one. But it doesn't matter to me one way or the other. I'd like to pass something."

Two years ago Republican senators passed a voucher bill, but it died in the Republican-controlled House, where some rural GOP lawmakers and Democrats opposed it.

That's when Haslam put together a task force to study vouchers.

House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, is lead sponsor of Haslam's bill in that chamber, but Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, is actually carrying it.

"I think this bill would pass all the way through," McCormick said. "I think if [senators] expanded it, it would have problems passing in the House."

Contact staff writer Andy Sher at or 615-255-0550.