NASHVILLE -- After clearing two legislative panels last week, a bill that would let low-income parents with children in failing public schools use taxpayer dollars to attend private institutions faces its next test this week.
The voucher bill is scheduled to come up Tuesday in the House's full Education and Administration Committee. Last week, the measure cleared the panel's subcommittee on a 7-1 vote following a sometimes emotional debate.
Its Senate companion, sponsored by Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, zipped through the Education Committee on an 8-0 vote last week with little debate.
It's dubbed the "Tennessee Choice & Opportunity Scholarship Act," and various versions of the bill have foundered in past years in House committees. But House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, said last month "there probably is more of a chance this year that it could pass."
The bill says that low-income students whose schools rank in the bottom 5 percent statewide for student achievement may use the scholarships.
If it passes, the bill would initially provide vouchers to 5,000 students in five school systems, including Hamilton County Schools. Over three years, the number of eligible students rises to 20,000, with $70 million leaving public schools for private ones. Each voucher is projected to be worth $6,628 in the 2015-16 school year.
The bill has strong support from several state and national groups, which have thrown hundreds of thousands of dollars into legislative campaigns in recent years. The Tennessee Federation for Children spent $73,000 attacking then-Rep. Dennis "Coach" Roach, R-Rutledge, in last summer's GOP primary. Roach had voted against the voucher bill. He lost his re-election bid to Jerry Sexton, R-Bean Station.
Last week, House proponents and the lone opponent on the education subcommittee, Rep. Kevin Dunlap, D-Rock Island, a school teacher, clashed on the measure.
"We get what we pay for and when we are taking $70 million away [from school districts], I'm very, very concerned about the future of public education, when we have made such gains and strides," Dunlap said.
He also questioned a section allowing private schools to use different norm-referenced tests -- assessments that compare and rank test-takers in relation to one another -- than the ones used by public schools.
Countered the bill's sponsor, Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, "You put the emphasis on the system. I'd like to put emphasis on the student."
Dunn also said local districts would retain some money while, he argued, their costs would be lower.
After his bill cleared committee last week, Gardenhire said that "we in essence in Hamilton County have a voucher system [already] in the magnet schools."
"They took good students out of failing schools and sent them to a magnet school, thereby leaving the failing schools failing even more," he said.
"So why shouldn't they [school officials] be joyful in setting up a system where students in a failing school, the parents have an opportunity to send their kids to a better school?"
Hamilton County has 13 public magnet schools with curricula built around themes such as arts or sciences.
The Gardenhire/Dunn measure is similar to one proposed last year by Republican Gov. Bill Haslam. Haslam's bill passed the Senate last year but failed in the House after some representatives tried to expand its scope to serve more students.
This year, Haslam chose to ignore a bill sponsored by Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, who in the past has fought for an expanded version.
Haslam recently told reporters he's backing the Gardenhire/Dunn bill because it "came to us in the form most like the bill we had proposed last year."
"[Legislators] interested in vouchers and the advocates who have been pushing for vouchers came to us and said, 'If we get this passed, would you fund it in the budget?' We said we would as long as it looked like this, and the Dunn/Gardenhire bill was the one that looked like it."
Kelsey has since signed on as a co-sponsor of Gardenhire's measure.
Contact staff writer Andy Sher at email@example.com or 615-255-0550.