Gresham Scuttles Expanded Voucher Bill, Kelsey Vows to Keep Pushing

Senate Education Committee Chair Dolores Gresham has backed down from a potential clash with Gov. Bill Haslam over the number of school vouchers that could be offered to Tennessee students.

During a meeting of Gresham’s committee Wednesday, the Somerville Republican pulled her expansive voucher legislation, Senate Bill 1358, from the full committee’s discussion agenda and sent it to a general subcommittee typically reserved for bills destined for no further consideration.

Gresham, however, also put off discussion on the governor’s scaled-back voucher legislation for another week.

Under Haslam’s plan, only low-income students from the state’s lowest-performing 5-percent of schools would be eligible to use state funds to pay for private school tuition. Senate Bill 196, which cleared the House Education Committee last week by a 9-4 vote, would also cap the number of vouchers awarded at 5,000 for the upcoming school year, growing to 20,000 by 2016.

Gresham’s bill called for eligibility for middle-class families earning nearly $75,000 a year and would have removed any cap on the number of vouchers by 2016. The bill also opened up eligibility regardless of school performance.

Gresham was short on specifics about her reasons for dropping the competing bill. But she also told reporters she’s not entirely rule out bringing it back later. “I think it’s too early to tell,” Gresham said. “We’ll see what the Legislature does.”

Yet even with Gresham bowing out for the time being, there is still the possibility of a dustup amongst Republicans over the issue. Sen Brian Kelsey, a member of the Education Committee and long-time voucher advocate, spoke with reporters after the meeting. Kelsey said he hopes to amend the governor’s bill to bring it closer to what Gresham was proposing.

“That has been my plan all along and it remains my plan is to allow as many low-income children as possible to be served under the governor’s bill,” said Kelsey, a Shelby County Republican. “Who knows where this is going to end up, but I think what she [Sen. Gresham] proposed is a very good amendment and that’s the type of amendment that I would like to try to place onto Senate Bill 196.”

The Senate Education Committee is scheduled to discuss Gov. Haslam’s bill on March 27.