State senator Todd Gardenhire speaks to the Hamilton County Pachyderm Club during their luncheon in this file photo.

NASHVILLE -- A plan to help Tennessee students move from failing public schools to private ones moved ahead Tuesday in the state House but included a provision delaying implementation should it become law.

The debate over the school voucher bill struck sparks between Democrats and Republicans in the House Government Operations Committee, but the measure ultimately was approved and sent onto its next step, the Finance Committee.

The Government Operations panel amended the bill to delay the Haslam administration from making any rules regarding the vouchers until Jan. 1. That effectively puts off issuing any vouchers until fall of the 2016-2017 school year.

The bill passed on a voice vote but it appeared to have the support of all seven committee Republicans. The three Democrats all said no, raising their hands later to be recorded as doing so.

The measure would use taxpayer dollars to fund vouchers or "opportunity scholarships" for low-income students in failing public schools.

It would be restricted to children eligible for free or reduced lunch programs, a common measure of poverty, and who now attend public schools in the bottom 5 percent statewide.

some text
Gerald McCormick speaks in this file photo.

The number of students it would apply to would be phased in over a several-year period, with a cap of 20,000 students.

But if the number of parents who take advantage of the vouchers falls below the cap, parents of low-income students attending any public school in the district would be eligible to use the vouchers.

The bill at this point would only apply to Hamilton, Shelby, Knox and Jackson-Madison county school systems as well as Metro Nashville.

The measure passed the full Senate on Monday, where Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, was the sponsor.

When questions about possibly delaying the bill came up Tuesday in the House panel, Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, said, "I've been involved in the past in slowing this effort down. But this time I've signed onto it. The school districts have had adequate time to prepare for this and its time has come."

McCormick and other Republican leaders became increasingly angry as Democrats continued to hit the bill's sponsor, Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, with questions. Republicans, including McCormick, said they weren't pertinent to the committee's charge of dealing not with substance of bills but rules and regulations.

Finally, Rep. John Ray Clemmons, D-Nashville, asked what rules there were "to replace the dollars that will be stolen from our public schools."

McCormick and fellow irate backers objected and Republicans forced the bill to a vote.

Supporters say vouchers will help rescue students and provide impetus for improvements at failing public schools. Critics say they will drain away taxpayer money needed to maintain the state's constitutional requirement to provide a free public education.

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