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Members of the Tennessee Legislature answer questions on education at the Hamilton County Department of Education in this file photo. The legislative members include, from left, Rep. Mike Carter, R-Ooltewah, Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, Rep. JoAnne Favors, D-Chattanooga, and Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga.

Three members of Hamilton County's legislative delegation say they'll push forward on a school voucher plan this spring when the Tennessee General Assembly reconvenes.

Gov. Bill Haslam's limited voucher plan was put on hold last session after Senate Republicans sought an expansion. But Hamilton County lawmakers told teachers and parents Tuesday that the issue will be back on the table this time around. Vouchers, called "opportunity scholarships" by some proponents, allow parents to use tax dollars targeted for public education to pay private school tuition.

Republicans attending the annual legislative forum hosted by Hamilton County Council of PTAs Tuesday said they don't anticipate a large number of families participating in a voucher program. But they said students and parents should have a choice.

"I want that poor mom who is doing the very best she can do to have the same opportunities my wife and I had," said House member Mike Carter, R-Ooltewah.

Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, told parents that the voucher program is the only way out of low-achieving schools for some kids.

"My rationale for vouchers is if you've got a kid trapped in a failing school and they need to go somewhere else or they want to go somewhere else, this is their ticket to go," he said.

The voucher proponents pointed to Katherine Smith as a target audience for school choice. Smith said she tried to get her sixth-grade son into high-performing magnet schools but space wasn't available. So he stayed at Tyner Middle Academy.

"You can't get them in. So what are we supposed to do?" she said.

"You would be a perfect example," said Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson. "You're wanting a choice. But your choices are limited."

House Democrat JoAnne Favors, D-Chattanooga, said she opposed vouchers for the same reason she opposes charter schools: both take away much-needed funds from public schools.

"As long as we drain resources, as long as we take money to start charter schools and to give vouchers, then we're never going to change the situation we have now," she said. "You know that and I know that."

Dan Liner, an English teacher at the Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences, said school choice already does exist in metropolitan areas like Chattanooga, where several magnet schools draw students in from across the county.

"In Chattanooga where we do have some of those failing schools, those students do have those options," he said. "We would welcome them to come to our school, which is a high-achieving magnet school. We would welcome them."

Contact staff writer Kevin Hardy at or 423-757-6249.