TN school voucher bill dead for another year

Despite backing from well-financed national lobbying organizations and Gov. Bill Haslam, legislation to implement a school voucher system in Tennessee is dead for another year, the bill’s House sponsor said today.

“The system won. The children lost,” said Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, after annnouncing in the House Finance Committee that he was abandoning efforts to win approval of the Haslam-drafted “Tennessee Choice and Opportunity Scholarship Act” (SB196).

The bill had won approval of the full Senate on a 21-10 vote last week. But Dunn said the bill lacked support to clear the key House committee and he decided not to push for time-consuming debate and a vote in the waning hours of the 2014 legislative session.

He said the quest for passage would resume next year because vouchers are “a wonderful tool for a child on a trajectory for failure” in public schools.

The bill, as amended, would have autorized state payments to private schools for up to 5,000 students in its first year of operation, expanding in stages over ensuing years to a maximum of 20,000 statewide in the fourth year. Only students in school districts having one or more “failing” schools – defined as being in the bottom 5 percent of schools statewide in student test scores – would have been eligible.

Only five counties in the state would have been covered under the criteria – Davidson, Hamilton, Knox , Shelby and Hardeman.

Also, applying students would have to be from low-income families and eligible for free or reduced-price lunch under federal guidelines.
A similar proposal from the governor failed last year.

National groups such as StudentsFirst and American Federation for Children have lobbied heavily for passage of a voucher bill and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in political contributions to legislative candidates. Dunn said their efforts helped because they provided research and information showing benefits of vouchers.

“But in the end, it always came down to protecting the system, the status quo,” he said.

Voucher critics in general contend it is unwise to siphon money from public school systems, already underfunded in Tennesee, to benefit private or church schools. There was also criticism that the governor’s limited proposal did not go far enough from those who felt a broader, statewide program is warranted.

From the AP:
Haslam spokeswoman Alexia Poe said the governor has always known that passing the legislation would be tough because “some legislators wanted a broader bill and some didn’t want a bill at all,” but he’s nonetheless disappointed the latest version had to be withdrawn.

“The governor has said all along that the proposal wasn’t a silver bullet but a piece of a larger strategy to offer more options for choice to families,” Poe said. “The governor is disappointed that a bill that made it further than any other voucher proposal has didn’t make it to the finish line.”

When asked why the proposal has had trouble, Dunn alluded to it being an election year and that lawmakers are probably being influenced by constituents — particularly in rural areas — against the legislation.

“We’re now in campaign season, and we just have to recognize that,” said the Knoxville Republican.