Tennessee school voucher proposal fails again

Friday, April 17, 2015, Vol. 39, No. 16

NASHVILLE (AP) - A proposal that would let parents move a child from a failing public school in Tennessee to a private school with funding from the state has failed this year - for the third consecutive Tennessee General Assembly session.

House sponsor Bill Dunn withdrew the school voucher proposal, or "opportunity scholarship," from the House Finance subcommittee on Tuesday and said he will likely try again next year.

"The votes just aren't there," said Dunn, R-Knoxville.

The legislation is similar to an unsuccessful measure Republican Gov. Bill Haslam proposed last year. The governor also failed to pass voucher legislation in the previous session.

The main reason for the proposal's failure has been attempts to expand eligibility instead of a more limited approach, which Haslam supports.

Dave Smith, the governor's spokesman, said Dunn's proposal and the companion bill that passed the Senate last month were limited and tha t the governor is still interested in such legislation.

"This was consistent with what the governor proposed in the past, and it's something he'd like to see happen," Smith said in an email to The Associated Press. "This is the first year of a two-year session, so there's opportunity for the bill next year."

Dunn's legislation sought to open eligibility to low-income students in districts that have a school in the bottom 5 percent of failing schools.

Republican Rep. Mike Harrison of Rogersville, who chairs the House Finance subcommittee, told reporters earlier this week that he planned to add another amendment that would expand eligibility to the bottom 10 percent of failing schools - the provision that helped kill the proposal in the House Finance Committee last year. However, Dunn withdrew the proposal.

Supporters of the voucher legislation were disappointed the bill was postponed but expressed optimism about it passing at some point.

"Time and again, we've seen opportunity scholarships in other states directly benefit families zoned to underperforming schools, and we are dedicated to seeing this through in our state," said Brent Easley, state director for the Tennessee chapter of StudentsFirst, a national education reform group.

"While momentum may have stalled in this particular committee, we feel confident that support continues to grow each year, evidenced by the co-sponsorship of more than one-third of all House members on this year's bill."

House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, and other opponents of vouchers say the money should be used to improve public schools.

"I think it's really a good thing for the public school system," Fitzhugh said of the bill's postponement. "I'm glad that we're able to keep that public funding intact."