The governor said he sees no reason to budge on his limited plan to offer state-funded scholarships to low-income students from failing schools, despite a hunger among some in his party for a bigger program.
The situation is creating a showdown of sorts expected to heat up this week between the conservative wing and moderates of the Republican Party in the GOP-led legislature.
“It’s not like we’re a people who just say, ‘It’s our way or the highway, the legislature shouldn’t have input,’ ” Gov. Bill Haslam told reporters Monday after signing a proclamation to honor Vietnam War veterans. “But on this issue, we really have worked hard to say, ‘This is where we think the right place is.’ And again, we think if somebody thinks something different, they should run their own bill.”
Sen. Brian Kelsey, a Germantown Republican, is targeting the governor’s proposed plan in a Senate committee this week. Kelsey wants to amend the bill to an “opportunity scholarship” program to children of families with income levels on par to a family of four making up to $75,000. Those students would then be eligible to attend private school on the taxpayer’s tab.
His plan is backed by the more conservative members of the legislature, who argue a student’s quality of education should not be dictated by where they live. The Senate, viewed as the more conservative chamber in the legislature, approved a voucher program in 2011 that the House refused to go along with.
Haslam’s plan limits the school voucher program to students qualifying for free or reduced lunch at the state’s worst 5 percent of schools. He is joined by moderates in the legislature, generally in the House of Representatives, although others are opposed to any kind of voucher program.
The governor said he hasn’t decided whether he would withdraw his bill if lawmakers like Kelsey change his proposal, saying “we haven’t crossed that bridge yet.”
“Our request has always been to say, ‘Consider our bill. If somebody else wants to have another bill, let them do that. But consider our bill and vote it up or down on its merits alone,” he said.
The governor said he sees no reason for him to budge from his original voucher plan.
“Budge for what? So far, I haven’t seen anything that makes me think what we’re proposing isn’t the right answer for Tennessee,” he told reporters.
Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, who is speaker of the Senate, wants to see a more expanded bill. Although he predicts the final result will end up as a compromise between the governor’s office and the legislature, he said the body may have to respect the governor’s insistence and stand down if they want any bill at all.
“I think in the end, if we want to get something passed, that might be the only option. But I think at the same time, you don’t want to begin with that when we have members on our side that feel strongly,” he told The City Paper.
“I cannot predict right now where we end up, but I hope in the end that we end up passing the bill. There’s a possibility that no bill passes, but I hope that’s not the reality,” he said.