New voucher advocate move: Limit them to Shelby County

Short of the votes needed to pass a statewide school-voucher bill, voucher advocates filed an amendment Wednesday that would limit the “opportunity scholarships” to students from the Shelby County Schools system, reports the Commercial Appeal.

After seven years of failure, the bill is set for a crucial floor vote in the House of Representatives Thursday morning. It was postponed from Monday when supporters acknowledged they lacked the 50 votes required for passage. The bill in its statewide version won state Senate approval last year; if the House approves the Shelby-only amendment, it must return to the Senate for concurrence before it becomes law.

Vouchers allow parents to take taxpayer funding from public schools to pay tuition at private schools — about $7,000 per student in Shelby County. The bill would limit vouchers to students attending schools in the lowest five percent as defined by state academic achievement standards, and students must be from households with incomes low enough to qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches.

The statewide bill provides for 5,000 vouchers in the first year of operation, increasing to 20,000 in the fourth year of the program. The amendment would allow 5,000 vouchers in Shelby County alone and require the state comptroller’s office to evaluate the program and make annual reports to the state legislature, which could then expand the program at any time.

The amendment was filed by Rep. David Hawk (R-Greeneville) but the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Bill Dunn (R-Knoxville), said he will support it if it wins enough votes to pass a bill. Most Democrats oppose vouchers but the House’s huge 73-26 Republican supermajority would be enough to pass the bill. But enough Republicans, particularly from rural areas, oppose vouchers and have stymied passage.

A small army of voucher lobbyists — most funded by out-of-state “school choice” groups — worked the legislative office building in hopes that the Shelby-only amendment would sway enough votes.

“If that’s where we are and we can help some kids, we will go with it,” Dunn said Wednesday. “The thing about Shelby County is they have a very large population, most of the failing schools are in that county and also they have many different private schools that have a lot of experience working with inner city children. So it really is a good place to start it out.”

Asked if he believes the amendment would turn enough votes his way, Dunn said, “We’ll see. I don’t know.”