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Craig Fitzhugh

NASHVILLE -- Legislative Democrats charged today that if the General Assembly passes a school voucher program, the costs to local school districts "would nearly wipe out all the new funding" proposed by Republican Gov. Bill Haslam for K-12 education next year.

"Our state is 47th in per pupil spending, and this state budget does nothing to help us move up the board against other states," House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley said in a news release. "We only hear about vouchers: a system that hasn't provided any stories of success. We have to fully fund our schools: not cut nearly a half billion dollars from their budgets."

Democrats say state Comptroller Justin Wilson recently told the House Finance Committee the state currently underfunds education by as much as a half billion dollars. Democrats say that adjusted for inflation, Tennessee spends less on public schools now than it did in 2008.

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In the 2016-17 spending plan Haslam presented to lawmakers earlier this week, the governor proposed spending an additional $261 million on K-12, largely for teacher pay and benefits.

But Democrats argue the voucher proposal, supported by Haslam, by 2018 would cost local school districts as much as $175 million in state and federal per-pupil funding. 

Democrats contend that as a result new net public education funding would amount to only about $86 million and would "barely cover the needs of local school districts across the state."

In fact, Democrats charged that combined with Comptroller Wilson's projections that Tennessee now underfunds education by $500 million, the voucher plan "will still underfund education by $414 million."

The voucher proposal, up for final consideration Monday night in the House, would allow tax dollars to be used for low-income parents to send their children in failing schools to private schools, including religious schools.

Over a four-year period, it would grow to 20,000 students.

"If we're trying to adequately fund public education, we shouldn't blow a $175 million hole in the budget for private school vouchers," Senate Democratic Caucus Chairman Jeff Yarbro of Nashville said. 

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