Is this the year school vouchers win legislative approval? McCormick thinks so

By Lucas Johnson, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — A top state House lawmaker says he believes a proposal to create a school voucher program in Tennessee may pass this year after failing in the past two legislative sessions.

Republican House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick of Chattanooga spoke to The Associated Press on Thursday, a day after legislation that gives parents the option to move a child from a failing public school to a private school passed the Senate Education Committee on a 5-1 vote. Two committee members were present but didn’t vote.

The measure is similar to one proposed last year by Republican Gov. Bill Haslam, which passed the Senate but failed in the House after attempts to expand its eligibility. Haslam also failed to pass voucher legislation in the previous session.

McCormick said he’s not sure how the bill will ultimately look, but he believes it has a chance this year because of continued conversation about “school choice.”

“I do think there’s more momentum,” he said. “Every year that passes, it’s more likely that some kind of a voucher bill passes. So I think there probably is more of a chance this year that it could pass.”

Critics of vouchers, or “opportunity scholarships,” argue that the effort is siphoning off needed money from public schools. But supporters insist the competition is good for families and spurs education improvement overall.

Haslam originally sought to limit the vouchers to students from low-income families attending the bottom 5 percent of failing schools.

Under the version that passed the Senate last year — which is the same one that advanced Wednesday evening — if there are not enough students for the available slots, then eligibility would be opened to low-income students in districts that have a school in the bottom 5 percent.

The companion bill failed last year in the House Finance Committee because there were many lawmakers opposed to it expanding eligibility to the bottom 10 percent of failing schools if slots are left.

Sen. Brian Kelsey, a Germantown Republican and sponsor of this year’s voucher proposal, said he’s optimistic about the bill’s chance of passage this session.

“My hope is that we can get the bill all the way through the House Finance Committee this year and for a House floor vote,” he said.

Kelsey said he hasn’t spoken with Haslam about the current proposal, but he has sent a draft to the governor’s staff.

Haslam spokesman Dave Smith told the AP in an email Thursday that the administration has not reviewed Kelsey’s proposal, but that the governor remains supportive of vouchers.

“The governor’s been clear about what he supports,” Smith said. “For the past two years he proposed legislation to offer opportunity scholarships to low-income students in the lowest-performing schools, and still thinks that’s the best approach.”

Note: The governor’s legislative package for the year is notable for the absence of a voucher bill, included in the past two year’s administrative package (as noted by AZ, HERE). Voucher-backing PACS spent a bunch of money in the last election cycle — $573,917 by StudentsFirst and $606,345 by American Federation for Children. (Mentioned in previous post HERE), including a successful effort to unseat former state Rep. Dennis “Coach” Roach, R-Rutledge, who was the only Republican voting no against vouchers last session. (Post from back in August HERE.) Which would indicate, perhaps, a more favorable environment for vouchers is now in place, especially with the governor stepping aside.

And, see also Andrea Zelinski’s observations on the voucher situation, HERE.

Sen. Kelsey’s press release celebrating initial Senate committee approval of his bill is below.

News release from Sen. Brian Kelsey:
NASHVILLE – The Senate Education Committee today approved legislation sponsored
by Senator Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown) calling for Opportunity Scholarships for
students eligible for free and reduced lunch within districts containing a
school in the bottom five percent of academic achievement. The “Tennessee
Choice and Opportunity Scholarship Act” mirrors legislation proposed by Governor
Bill Haslam last year that was passed by the Senate but stalled in the House.

“Equal Opportunity Scholarships provide impoverished children with hope for a
better education and choice in the school they attend,” said Senator Brian
Kelsey. “Children should not be forced to attend a failing school just because
they live in a certain neighborhood.”

Under Senate Bill 122,
approximately $6,500 of the scholarships would be offered to low-income students
to attend the school of their parents’ choice. The scholarship program would be
capped at 5,000 students in year one, 7,500 in year two, 10,000 in year three,
and 20,000 in year four and thereafter. If those caps are not reached each
year, scholarships would be offered to other low-income children in those
counties in which a school in the bottom 5 percent of schools is located.

“This is an idea whose time has come,” added Kelsey, who first introduced the
idea in the Tennessee legislature ten years ago. “The parents of these children
deserve more choices, and their children deserve more options to receive a
quality education.”

The bill is sponsored by House Education Administration and Planning Committee
Chairman Harry Brooks (R-Knoxville) in the House of Representatives.

Senator Kelsey represents Cordova, East Memphis, and Germantown. He serves as a
member of the Senate Education Committee and as Chairman of the Senate Judiciary
Committee.