Voucher bill clears House sub

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — A proposal to provide state vouchers of about $7,000 for parents to send their children to private schools in Tennessee has cleared a House panel that rejected the measure in recent years.

The bill sponsored by Republican Rep. Bill Dunn of Knoxville cleared the House Finance Subcommittee on a voice vote Wednesday. It would apply to students who attend public schools that rank in the bottom 5 percent in the state.

The measure now heads for the full Finance Committee before moving to a floor vote. The companion bill passed the Senate last year.

The program would be capped at 5,000 students in the first year and would then grow by 5,000 each year until reaching 20,000.

Dunn said the state costs of the proposal will be covered in Republican Gov. Bill Haslam’s budget this year. Haslam has in the past supported a limited voucher program in Tennessee, but previous efforts have fallen apart amid advocates’ attempts to create a more expansive program.

House Democratic leader Craig Fitzhugh of Ripley warned of what he called the “devastating effect” of shifting funding out of public schools to pay for the voucher program.

The Legislature estimates it would cost about $185,000 for the state to put the voucher program in effect. But the program would also shift nearly $17 million away from public schools in the first year, and grow to about $70 million in the fourth year.

Note: News releases in praise and in opposition to the voucher vote are below.

News release from StudentsFirst
NASHVILLE, TN- In a major victory for Tennessee students, the House Finance Subcommittee today advanced critical school choice legislation that seeks to empower thousands of families zoned to underperforming schools across the state with the tools they need to access quality educational options for their children.

The legislation, HB 1049, would give parents of students attending a school ranking in the bottom 5 percent statewide the option of using an Opportunity Scholarship to enroll their child in a high-performing private school of their choice. Aimed at providing better educational access for low-income households in underperforming school zones, the law would be gradually phased-in over time, with a cap of 5,000 scholarships awarded in the first year of implementation and expanding to 20,000 scholarships over a four-year period.

Following the subcommittee vote, StudentsFirst Tennessee Spokesman Ted Boyatt remarked, “Today’s decisive action by the House Finance Subcommittee represents a major step forward for thousands of Tennessee families in urgent need of an educational lifeline to a quality school. With their votes, members demonstrated a renewed commitment to ensuring that every student can access a great education and that every parent and family has the right to determine the best school decisions for their own child. Thanks to the courageous leadership of the committee, Tennessee stands closer now than ever before to breaking down one of the final educational barriers that otherwise threatens to confine academic opportunity to a simple ZIP code.”

Last year, the legislation passed the Senate by an overwhelming 23-9 vote margin and advanced through three critical House committees before ultimately being delayed for further action until 2016.

“Clearly, this vital school choice legislation continues to build upon its momentum from last year’s progress,” Boyatt continued. “With over one-third of House members, including representatives in both parties, having already signed their names in co-sponsorship of the bill, today’s affirmative vote from a key subcommittee further signals a growing chorus of support for parental school choice, both in Nashville and across the state.”

The legislation now advances to the full House Finance Committee.

Statement to media from Tennessee Democratic Party
Nashville, Tn (January 20, 2016) – The vote today by the House Finance, Ways & Means Subcommittee to move school vouchers forward is a huge blow to public education in Tennessee. Democrats believe that every child in every zip code deserves a free and quality education. This Republican plan takes public tax dollars and gives them to private schools.

Many private schools cost far more than the voucher amount and the vouchers are just a coupon for those who can already afford high tuition prices. Simply stated, school vouchers are not the answer. They undermine the core of Tennessee’s public education system.

Not only are they stripping taxpayer dollars from public schools but Republicans passed this bill by taking advantage of a colleague’s poor health. Sadly, this is just politics as usual for Tennessee’s Republicans.