Tennessee school voucher bill scrapes through House Finance Committee by one vote

The Tennessee Capitol is shown in Nashville. Gov. Bill Haslam's administration says 700 workers have accepted buyouts in what the administration says is an attempt to right-size state government. The Tennessee State Employees Association says it fears the move will lead to reduced services for state residents.
The Tennessee Capitol is shown in Nashville. Gov. Bill Haslam's administration says 700 workers have accepted buyouts in what the administration says is an attempt to right-size state government. The Tennessee State Employees Association says it fears the move will lead to reduced services for state residents.

NASHVILLE - An effort to create a school voucher program scraped through the House Finance Committee on Tuesday after a bitter debate, giving the years-long quest to use taxpayer dollars to send students to private schools its best chance ever of becoming reality.

Finance Committee members voted 11-10 for House Bill 1049 with four Republicans from Southeast Tennessee helping push the measure over the finish line.

It's the furthest a voucher bill has ever gotten in the GOP-run House, although the measure has repeatedly passed the Republican-controlled Senate, including last year when Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, passed the companion bill.

The House bill now goes to the Calendar and Rules Committee, which is considered less of a lift for proponents.

If it clears that panel, as many expect, the bill, which has already passed the Senate, would go to the House floor for a final vote.

And then what?

"That's going to be a war," predicted one Republican, noting a number of GOP lawmakers from rural and suburban areas remain uncomfortable with aspects of the legislation.

The measure's sponsor, Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, acknowledged there will be a fierce and lengthy floor battle.

"Pack your lunch," Dunn wryly observed later when asked about the "war" assessment. "Pack your supper."

Committee members spent more than 2 1/2 hours listening to debate over the bill, as well as quarreling among themselves.

Supporters say the Tennessee Choice and Opportunity Scholarship Act will throw poorer students at failing public schools a lifeline to a better future.

Opponents argue school voucher programs haven't worked well in states that have adopted them. They also say vouchers offer false hope to many and, ultimately, may result in potentially crippling losses of funds for public education.

Dunn told colleagues many students "right now are on a path to failure, and these scholarships give them the opportunity for success."

But House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, questioned what impact the program would ultimately have on public education. Tennessee already ranks 47th in per-pupil spending, he said.

"How can we take money from failing schools and give it to private schools?" he said. "We'd do better to take money from schools in the richest neighborhoods, not the poorest."

Critics also question the use of taxpayer funds to support religious schools, which they say are the most likely to accept vouchers.

Voting for the bill were House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga; Rep. Mike Carter, R-Ooltewah; Rep. Patsy Hazlewood, R-Signal Mountain, and Rep. Kevin Brooks, R-Cleveland.

Voting no was Rep. David Alexander, R-Winchester, who pulled an amendment that would require any school accepting vouchers to certify they won't teach that any sacred or secular law as "above the Constitution," teach ideas "that present females as less than equal to males."

Yet another provision in Alexander's amendment requires schools to say they won't "teach in any way that sanctions suppression of free speech by invoking blasphemy." The amendment would impact Christian, Jewish, Muslim and other religious schools.

"I think you're trying to open up a Pandora's box," Alexander bluntly told Dunn. "You don't have any idea where these children are going to end up going to school what kind of strange ideology might be taught at this school besides reading, writing and arithmetic."

He pulled the amendment due to concerns over one provision but plans to push it on the floor.

While not mentioning Alexander, McCormick took issue with the concerns about religious schools and potential "indoctrination." Rather, McCormick said some "lobbyists" opposing vouchers have cautioned him the bill "might bring Islamic schools to Tennessee.

"Now why would anyone tell me that?" McCormick asked mockingly. "That's curious to me that they're bringing up Islamic schools and trying to get people to vote against this bill."

McCormick worked in another slam on the Hamilton County Board of Education for suing the state over Tennessee's school funding formula and inviting other districts to join in.

Among those testifying against the bill was T.C. Weber of Nashville, whose son attends a public school.

"He goes to that school you're trying to take resources from," Weber told proponents. "What happens to the kids that get left behind? What happens to the kids who don't get chosen? Let's not just send lifeboats out to save a few people while others remain behind and drown."

But Rep. John DeBerry, D-Memphis, a black minister and long-term voucher advocate, argued that "at the end of the day, it's about giving the parents a choice about where their kids are educated. [G]raduates of Memphis schools can't pass the exams to be a buck private."

Earlier Tuesday, Republican Gov. Bill Haslam, whose limited voucher bill is what is under discussion, again reiterated his support for it.

The bill lets parents of children who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, a key measure of poverty, apply for a voucher if their school falls within one of the state's bottom 5 percent of schools.

Vouchers would be limited to 5,000 children in the first year, gradually increasing to a 20,000-student cap by the fourth year. Public schools would lose almost $17 million in per-pupil funding in the first year. Vouchers would amount to $6,628 each.

But the bill has another provision that says if the vouchers aren't entirely used up by those students, vouchers could be extended to low-income children in any Tennessee school district that has just one failing school, even if it's not failing.

That has some Republicans concerned. Rep. David Hawk, R-Greeneville, had an amendment to deal with that. But the Finance Committee decreed the amendment was not timely filed and it wasn't considered. Hawk, a pivotal vote, ended up voting for the bill but is likely to push his amendment later.

That, along with Alexander's religious amendment, is expected to trigger some of the major floor fights.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com, 615-255-0550 or follow via twitter at AndySher1.

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