There’s a move afoot on Capitol Hill to expand the governor’s limited voucher program beyond the state’s poorest students attending the worst schools.
State Rep. Bill Dunn, who is sponsoring the legislation on behalf of Gov. Bill Haslam, is a fan of more broad-range voucher programs. While he originally said he would resist temptation to push a more expansive program, Dunn said he’s willing to consider it if school choice advocates can guarantee at least 50 votes to back the idea.
“I said for those who want to expand it, if you’ll bring a list of 50, 55 votes who will vote for it, then it will allow me to go to the governor, and say, ‘Hey, the will of the body is to expand it. Let’s have a discussion on this if we do it and how far we go,’ ” said Dunn, R-Knoxville.
Haslam’s press secretary said the governor is standing by his original proposal.
“The governor has spent a lot of time studying the issue, and a lot of thought and input has gone into his proposal,” wrote spokesman Dave Smith in an email. “His bill gives low-income students in Tennessee’s lowest performing schools another alternative for school choice, and he believes his approach best fits into our state’s overall education reform strategy.”
The issue is one of the hot topics in the legislature this year after the governor staved off legislation in 2012 so a study committee could research best practices for a program.
Vouchers, also known by proponents as “opportunity scholarships,” are tuition waivers for public school students to attend private schools. Under the governor’s proposal, only students qualifying for free or reduced lunch who attend schools ranked in the bottom 5 percent in the state are eligible. As is, the program would largely include students attending dozens of Memphis schools, plus five Nashville schools, a sprinkling of schools in Hamilton County and one in Knoxville.
Fans of school choice and vouchers want a more wide-ranging program, including Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey who said he wants a larger, statewide pool of students in the program to better determine if it works.
The legislative priority, Ramsey said, is to devise a bill that can get just enough to pass each chamber, which means 17 votes in the Senate and 50 in the House. He said he wouldn’t be surprised if the final details aren’t settled on until a conference committee and he is not concerned about striking balance on a bill his whole GOP caucus can support.
“I don’t see this as a savior, again, for education. But it is one of about a dozen things that need to be done to improve education in Tennessee,” he said.
The bill is up for debate Tuesday in the House Education Subcommittee, where Dunn expects it will have “a favorable hearing.” He said the key now, is to pass the original parameters of the governor’s bill until voucher advocates can deliver.
“It really comes down to getting the votes. If they can only get 30 people for the expansion, and you lose votes, then that’s not good.”