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Columnist David Martin
Three times in the past five years, the prospects for school vouchers in Tennessee have died before getting to a Nashville floor vote — death by subcommittee. There is momentum to change that, and on Wednesday a House budget panel voted to move voucher legislation forward for full committee consideration.

It's about time. Now, underprivileged students from the state's worst performing public schools are one step closer to winning school choice.

School vouchers have long been championed by advocates as a positive alternative for K-12 students trapped in woebegon schools. Their rallying cry (a question, really) is why should a child be shackled to a failing school simply because they live in a certain ZIP code?

The legislation advancing in the state capitol is fairly simple. It allows economically challenged students attending the bottom 5 percent of Tennessee schools to receive scholarships for private school tuition. Essentially, the students and their families could shop for better educational experiences.

Of course, the most substantial pushback against this plan has been raised by opponents who worry that a voucher system will endanger already anemic school budgets. After all, those "opportunity scholarships" would be financed by the local and state dollars a public school would normally receive for each student.

Speaking to that point on Wednesday, the legislation's House sponsor, Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, said that while the majority of the tax money per voucher student would leave with them, some cash will stay behind. Dunn claims that for each vacating student, the public school would lose 100 percent of the responsibility of educating the child but still keep $1,200.

But budgets aren't the only major skirmishing ground in the voucher battle. Opponents also question whether students who abandon underperforming schools will be better off once they've left. It's around this argument that we hear quite a bit about Louisiana and Milwaukee.

After a couple of years of less-than-stellar results, Louisiana's voucher program started rounding the corner in 2015, only its third year in existence. And though skeptics will point to the fact that a third of the private institutions accepting vouchers still aren't meeting expectations, those detractors are conveniently ignoring the fact that all (as in every single one) of the public schools the students left were underperforming. It's also worth noting that the Louisiana system is rapidly improving. At the end of 2014, only half the voucher schools were deemed successful. Today two-thirds are. Lesson: As with everything, there's a learning curve.

Whereas Louisiana is new to the school choice game, Milwaukee has been at it for a quarter century. There, critics hammer the system for not being good enough, saying there isn't that much difference on standardized test scores between voucher and public school students. That surely does merit discussion, but it also serves as a helpful case study for Tennesseans to analyze.

The benefit of developing a voucher system now in Tennessee is that it can be created to fit our unique needs. We get to set our own expectations for what success will look like, how we'll gauge outcomes and what our accountability measures will be. We get to chart our own course, using examples from Louisiana, Milwaukee and elsewhere to glean best practices.

To be pro-voucher doesn't mean you have to be anti-public school — don't believe anyone who says otherwise. That said, it's time we stop hamstringing the educational opportunities of our school children by limiting their learning options.

Contact David Allen Martin at davidallenmartin423@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter @DMart423.

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