NASHVILLE – By pushing for a more expansive school voucher program than Gov. Bill Haslam wanted, key state Senate Republicans probably have assured that no voucher bill of any sort will be enacted this year.
Haslam decided Wednesday to abandon for the year efforts to pass his bill to provide “opportunity scholarships” to a limited number of low-income students in the state’s lowest-rated schools.
Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville, announced the governor’s decision.
“He did not want it to become a political football at the expense of the children,” said Norris, adding that the situation had devolved into “gamemanship.”
Senate Education Committee Chairman Dolores Gresham, R-Somerville, and Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, had been leading an effort to broaden the voucher bill to cover far more students than the Haslam bill. Their plans called for transforming the governor’s bill with amendments to accomplish that goal.
By yanking the bill from further consideration this year, Haslam and Norris avoid that possibility and, as a practical matter, eliminate chances for any voucher bill to pass this year.
Kelsey, however, said he has not given up and Gresham said she would be looking at options.
“The governor and I have always been on the same page,” Gresham said. “We’re just on different paragraphs.”
“I am fully committed to continuing to try to pass an opportunity scholarship bill this year – as I have been for the last eight years,” said Kesley. “We can still pass a bill without his (the governor’s) support. It is possible.”
But perhaps not likely as legislative leaders push to close the 2013 legislative session by April 18.
The Senate Education Committee, which must approve any voucher bill before it can be further considered, officially closed for the year on Wednesday – though Gresham, as chair, could re-open it if she wishes. Kelsey raised another possibility – taking a bill that has already passed the committee on a related topic and amending it to include launch a broad voucher system.
Many members of the Legislature’s Republican supermajority have proclaimed support for vouchers in general, though Kelsey acknowledged backing for an expanded version is stronger in the Senate than the House. Any late-launched voucher bill would have to clear at least five House committees in two weeks to reach a vote before the scheduled end of the session.
Democrats have generally opposed any voucher system, arguing it will take money out of public schools that need the funds. But they had also expected a voucher bill to pass, given GOP dominance of the General Assembly.
“There is a God!” said House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, when asked for comment on Haslam’s decision.
David Smith, Haslam’s press secretary, send media this statement via email:
“The administration studied this issue for a year and brought a diverse group of stakeholders to the table throughout that process. As a result of those efforts, the governor believes his proposal fits in best with the state’s overall education reform efforts. Throughout this process, he wanted his bill to be considered on its merit and for substantially different proposals to be considered separately.”
The Haslam bill would have authorized vouchers for students attending schools ranked in the bottom five percent statewide in student performance and from low-income families. There would also be a 5,000-student cap on enrollment in the first year, expanding in phases to 20,000 by 2016.
The most-discussed Kelsey alternative would have no enrollment cap and would allow vouchers in all schools. It would also set a higher income level for eligibility.