By Eric Schelzig, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — A national group advocating for a large-scale school voucher program in Tennessee is launching a massive media campaign to persuade lawmakers to expand the program proposed by Gov. Bill Haslam.
An official familiar with the plans told The Associated Press on Friday that the state chapter of the American Federation for Children is spending $800,000 on broadcast television, cable and radio advertising — a vast amount for political advertising or issue advocacy in the state.
The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because the group has not made the amount public.
Haslam told reporters this week that he plans to stick with the narrower plan he proposed in his State of the State address, which he predicted would be “hotly debated” anyway.
Haslam’s proposal would limit the program to 5,000 students in failing schools in the academic year that begins in August, and grow to 20,000 by 2016.
“We didn’t just decide to pick a point where we thought, ‘Oh, this can get passed,'” Haslam said. “We really did pull a lot of people in to go through a thoughtful process about what we think is right for Tennessee right now.”
Haslam declined to say whether he would veto a bill that significantly goes beyond his proposal.
“I always hate to give ultimatums on things,” he said. “But we’re going to be very clear to everyone that we’re for our bill.”
The first ads urge supporters of “opportunity scholarships” to call key Republican lawmakers on the House Education Committee perceived to be on the fence about the issue, like freshman Reps. Dawn White of Murfreesboro and Debra Moody of Covington.
Moody said she welcomed the calls.
“I don’t mind hearing from people, no matter what their thoughts are,” she said in an interview on the House floor on Thursday. “I welcome that. But in the end it will come down to however I weigh it out.”
Tennessee Federation for Children spokeswoman Kimberly Kump said the advertising campaign reflects the urgency of the issue.
“It is important that citizens know what is coming before their legislators and that their voice needs to be heard,” she wrote in an email. “Opportunity scholarships are a key part of comprehensive education reform that helps kids and families now.”
Haslam last year persuaded the Legislature to defer taking up voucher proposals while a task force he appointed studied the various options about which families should be eligible to use public money to send their children to private schools.
Before announcing that he would sponsor a bill on vouchers in January, Haslam had been undecided about whether he would take the lead on the issue or if he would let lawmakers control the measure.
Haslam spokesman David Smith said the governor’s plans would be unchanged by the heavy investment by the pro-voucher group.
“The governor’s proposal is the result of a year-long process to make sure that a program would fit into the overall landscape of education reform in Tennessee,” Smith said in an email. “He believes his proposal is the best way to go.”