After Years Of Debate, Private School Vouchers Clear A Major Hurdle In Tennessee

State Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, discusses his voucher plan with Jim Wrye of the Tennessee Education Association after Wednesday's vote. Credit: Chas Sisk/WPLN.

State Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, discusses his voucher plan with Jim Wrye of the Tennessee Education Association after Wednesday’s vote. Credit: Chas Sisk/WPLN.

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Tennessee lawmakers are on track to pass the state’s first school voucher program.

A key panel voted Wednesday to approve a plan that would eventually offer up to 20,000 vouchers for private school tuition.

Government-funded vouchers for private school tuition have been in the works in Tennessee for several years. Advocates say they’ll give low-income families another choice, rather than forcing them to attend failing schools.

The House Finance Subcommittee has been a major hurdle, however. Skeptics, including some Republicans on the panel, say voucher programs in other parts of the country haven’t delivered results.

But this year, that subcommittee has seen a shakeup, after its chairman, state Rep. Mike Harrison, resigned his seat last fall. That, combined with the absence of another skeptic for medical reasons, paved the way for vouchers to make their way out on a voice vote.

Vouchers’ long-time sponsor, state Rep. Bill Dunn, isn’t ready to declare victory but he says the move is a tremendous development.

“I’m excited. This is great. I think it’s obvious there are kids that are in need, and if we don’t help them this way, then they’re doomed to failure.”

The proposal, House Bill 1049, calls for creating 5,000 vouchers for private school tuition at the outset. That number would eventually increase to 20,000 vouchers.

Vouchers — or “opportunity scholarships,” as their supporters call them — would be offered first to children from low-income families and who have been assigned to schools designated by the state as failing. If those children do not take all of the vouchers, eligibility would be expanded to other families within the same school system.

The state Senate has already approved voucher legislation. Gov. Bill Haslam has proposed similar voucher plans in years past.

Wednesday’s vote in the House came relatively quickly, as most lawmakers appeared to have their minds made up before the subcommittee met.

An important vote in favor of vouchers came from House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga. He says his thinking has evolved.

McCormick once feared vouchers would distract from other efforts to improve public schools. But rather than prepare for vouchers’ eventual passage, public school districts have hired lawyers to sue the state for more funding, McCormick said.

“We have waited long enough,” he said. “The time to take care of this is now.”

Opponents scrambled to convince the subcommittee to hold the line. They argued top private schools would have little incentive to accept vouchers, and they pointed to studies that suggest students who get vouchers do no better than their peers who remain in public schools.

They also said vouchers will erode funding for public education and said that students from immigrant families would find it difficult to navigate the voucher-application process.

State Rep. David Alexander, R-Winchester, was concerned vouchers might be used to send kids to religious schools. He said he plans to offer an amendment that would bar schools that receive vouchers from having rules against blasphemy, teaching that women are inferior to women or that religious law supersedes the U.S. Constitution.

But opponents mainly decried the maneuvering that went into the vote. State Rep. Mike Stewart, D-Nashville, said voucher backers seemed to have bided for an opportune time.

“You’re talking about a bill that, according to the fiscal note, is going to cost local governments $70 million and you run it out of committee on a snow day with one of the key members of the committee not there?” he said. “Vouchers is one of those unusual policies for which there is virtually no support.”

This story was originally published on January 20, 2016 via Nashville Public Radio.

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