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Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, front, is applauded as he arrives to deliver his annual State of the State address to the Legislature Monday, Feb. 9, 2015, in Nashville.

After years of lobbying, millions of dollars from in-state and out-of-state advocacy groups and the support of the governor and other legislative leaders, school vouchers are still banned in Tennessee.

Republican lawmakers and conservative groups are more likely to support what they call "opportunity scholarships," public funds to offset the cost of private school education for some students. And with the GOP supermajority at the General Assembly, many issues backed by conservative groups have become law.

But not always in education. Apart from a limited program to allow vouchers for special-needs students passed this year, there have been just enough Republican lawmakers to join with Democrats in beating back vouchers. The bill to let parents choose to transform their school into a charter school -- known as the parent trigger bill -- also failed.

"Unfortunately, (the voucher) bill was stalled for a number of reasons. Lobbying groups representing district school boards, for instance, claimed budgetary concerns while groups like ours pointed to school choice having a positive educational impact for students," said Ted Boyatt, spokesman for an organization called StudentsFirst.

Outside spending

California-based StudentsFirst was created by former Washington, D.C., school chief Michelle Rhee, the former wife of polarizing Tennessee education head Kevin Huffman. The organization also goes locally by the name Tennessee Parents/Teachers Putting Students First, and has advocated for vouchers since the end of 2012.

It spent as much as $213,907 on lobbying in 2014, with its political action committee spending $573,917 during the two years leading up to the 2014 election, according to state finance records.

Washington, D.C.-based Tennessee Federation for Children, the state chapter of the American Federation for Children, spent as much as $150,000 on lobbying in 2014 and $606,345 during the 2014 campaign cycle, according to campaign finance records.

It didn't work. One Democrat, former Rep. Gloria Johnson, was ousted, but other targeted Democrats -- including Nashville Reps. Darren Jernigan and Jason Powell -- survived campaign onslaughts from outside groups.

Although Tommy Schultz, a spokesman for the Tennessee Federation for Children, argued the money helped elect "school choice" candidates, the voucher bill continues to die in a House finance subcommittee.

"Our public education system is the bedrock of our communities and their success and it is not for sale," said Lyn Hoyt, a spokeswoman for Tennesseans Reclaiming Educational Excellence, a group advocating against vouchers. "Citizens see through a lot of this paid PR agenda to sway public opinion if they are experiencing the changes in the system. The changes have been so swift and painful, trust is gone."

Schultz and Boyatt disagree. Schultz's organization released a poll earlier this year that it believes shows increasing public support for vouchers. Both groups have advocated for vouchers for three years, and they both believe the bill is gaining some traction at the state Capitol.

"I think our organization has made a positive impact in raising the profile of this issue and advancing the debate on school choice. Progress on such an important issue doesn't happen overnight, and each year has been more successful than the last," Boyatt said.

The more successful groups advocated against a program that drains money from public schools and doesn't work, said Tennessee Education Association spokesman Jim Wrye.

The TEA, one of the largest teachers unions in the state, opposes vouchers. Although the union lost considerable power when collective bargaining rights were nixed in Tennessee, it still spent big: $530,130 by its political action committee in the 2014 election cycle, and as much as $175,000 in lobbying in 2014, according to state campaign finance records.

"TEA was the key to defeating vouchers. All public education groups rallied to defeat the measure, but the political strength came from the members of TEA," Wrye said in a statement.

"In order to challenge the out-of-state special interest groups like the American Federation for Children and StudentsFirst, TEA members had to show they would support anti-privatization legislators, Republican and Democrat alike. We did that in 2014, where members voted in GOP primaries in record numbers, electing pro-public school lawmakers, and matching the deep pockets of the out-of-state special interests."

Boyatt and Schultz say those statements are inaccurate. Schultz argued recent elections have led to more "school choice candidates" earning seats at the statehouse.

Political progression of vouchers

The progression of the voucher bill hasn't borne out the argument from pro-voucher groups that their campaign efforts are making a difference.

GOP Rep. Eddie Smith, R-Knoxville, did defeat Johnson, a teachers union favorite, in the 2014 election. He serves on an education committee and did vote in favor of the voucher bill this year.

But the education committee isn't the problem for the bill. It's the House Finance, Ways and Means Subcommittee. Chairman Mike Harrison, R-Rogersville, and Democrats on the committee opposed the voucher bill as it was introduced.

House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, is on the committee and recently noted the composition of that committee has changed. But he correctly predicted there would still be the votes to kill the voucher bill, a move he credited to work by Democrats.

"This is an example of the minority holding the majority hostage. A small and shrinking group of legislators have twice used a small subcommittee to delay parents from obtaining access to educational options despite the majority of members in both chambers supporting this bill," Schultz said.

Bill sponsor Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, pulled it from the committee's calendar before lawmakers could vote. That means the state Senate, which approved a voucher bill, won't need to approve a new bill next year. And the bill will only need to make it through one subcommittee and a full committee in the House before it could go to the full House for a vote.

But House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, a sponsor of the voucher bill, recently suggested it might take further changes on that committee before vouchers can make it to the full House.

Tom Humphrey contributed to this report.

Reach Dave Boucher at 615-259-8892 or dboucher@tennessean.com and on Twitter @Dave_Boucher1.

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