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Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam talks about education and his budget to the editorial board at the Times Free Press.

NASHVILLE — While he's backing a school voucher bill scheduled to hit the House floor today, Gov. Bill Haslam dismisses talk by some lawmakers he's doing a little arm-twisting to get some reluctant fellow Republicans to vote yes.

"No, I really haven't," Haslam told Times Free Press editors and reporters last week, though he says he's freely given his opinion to anyone who asks.

"We obviously are supporting the bill," he said. "I haven't personally been pulling anybody in the office lobbying for it. I do think it's the right thing to do."

The governor added, "As you know, it kind of mirrors the bill we proposed two years ago for folks with low-income kids in lower-performing schools."

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Mike Carter - 29th District
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While Republicans have a supermajority of 73 in the 99-member House, both sides say the vote tally is extremely close. Some lawmakers and lobbyists said last week Haslam was seeking to persuade several Republicans who were opposed. The bill passed the Republican-controlled Senate last year.

Asked about predictions of a "war" on the House floor, bill sponsor Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, quipped, "Pack your supper."

The measure would allow low-income families with children are in failing public schools to use taxpayer dollars to attend private schools, including religious schools. Vouchers are projected to be worth nearly $7,000 annually per student.

Of Tennessee's 141 school districts, five have schools on the state's "priority" list of failing schools. Hamilton County has five schools on the priority list.

The bill up for a House vote tonight mirrors Haslam's 2014 bill in that it starts with 5,000 students in the first year and scales that up to 20,000 in the fourth year.

But unlike Haslam's bill, this version would allow parents of low-income students in some better-performing schools to use vouchers if those in the worst schools don't use them all.

Haslam introduced a limited bill two years ago but yanked it after Senate Republicans sought to substantially expand the number of children it would cover.

Last year Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, introduced a new version and has kept it closer to Haslam's original proposal.

Gardenhire's bill is what passed the Senate last year. If an amended bill passes the House, it would go back to the Senate for concurrence.

Haslam expects to sign the bill if it hasn't been dramatically expanded. If and when that happens, Tennessee would become the 14th state with a voucher program.

The bill is opposed by associations representing school boards, superintendents and county commissions, as well as all but one of the 26 House Democrats. Opponents are hoping 25 Republicans will join them in voting no.

The Tennessee Education Association, which represents many teachers, opposes the bill, but a number of outside voucher advocacy groups back it. In the 2014 cycle, those groups dumped hundreds of thousands of dollars into Tennessee races, money that helped defeat a Democratic representative in the general election and toppled a Republican opponent in his GOP primary.

Voucher legislation was bottled up for five years in the House but finally burst through a restaffed Finance Subcommittee this month and scraped through the full committee by a single vote.

Democrats charge the bill would blow a hole in public school funding and nearly negate the $261 million Haslam is recommending for public education in the 2016-17 budget.

Rep. Kevin Dunlap, D-Rock Island, a high school social studies teacher first elected in 2014, said public schools already aren't funded very well and face losing "hundreds of millions of dollars" over a five-year period.

"Our public schools have improved. We're No. 1 in the nation as the fastest-improving schools in the country," said Dunlap, whose own county has no schools on the state priority list. "With all the steps we've taken forward, why should we take three or four steps backward?"

He echoed previous criticisms by some Republicans, saying public money is "going to go to schools that are religious schools. They're Christian, Catholic, Muslim, Buddhist, Jewish schools in our state. There is no accountability."

Rep. Rep. David Alexander, R-Winchester, has proposed an amendment requiring any private schools accepting public money to certify they won't teach that any sacred or secular law is "above the Constitution" or push ideas "that present females as less than equal to males."

Rep. Mike Carter, R-Ooltewah, who voted for the bill in the Finance Committee, said he will do the same on the House floor.

"We owe an obligation to the underprivileged, the underserved," Carter said. "We tell them about the American Dream. Yet we give them no way to acquire it. That is wrong. We are going to give those kids a way to achieve the American Dream by giving them the chance, the choice to get a quality education."

Carter acknowledged a $7,000 voucher wouldn't pay for students in failing public schools to attend top-tier private schools like McCallie School, Baylor School and Girls Preparatory School in Chattanooga.

"Maybe not the top schools, but they can do better than the schools they're in now," Carter said. "When you begin this conversation, answer this honestly but quietly in your mind, 'Am I for the school system or am I for the child?'"

Meanwhile, House Deputy Speaker Steve McDaniel, R-Lexington, flatly rejected assertions by some Republicans and lobbyists that he was one of the lawmakers being pressured by the governor.

"Not me," said McDaniel, who represents a rural district. "I've been for them [vouchers]. Well, I might have been [against them] last year."

Asked what had changed his mind, McDaniel said, "those kids in Memphis who need an opportunity for education, that's what. And it does not bother my school systems back home."

That's a position a number of rural lawmakers have taken, since only five of the state's 141 districts are impacted. But opponents say that could change, since the proposed law would apply to an ever-changing group of lowest performing schools.

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

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