The speaker of the state Senate, Ron Ramsey, said Thursday he still favors passing a school-voucher program that offers “opportunity scholarships” to a greater number of Tennessee students than what Gov. Bill Haslam is proposing.
And the best way to do that is by amending the legislation containing Haslam’s more limited proposal, said Ramsey.
Ramsey’s comments came a day after Senate Education Committee Chairman Dolores Gresham seemingly abandoned her own voucher bill that would have significantly increased the number of voucher-eligible students compared to the governor’s plan.
Gresham’s committee was set to discuss her measure Wednesday evening but the Somerville Republican quietly removed it from the agenda at the start of the meeting.
Talking to reporters during a news conference following the Senate’s floor session Thursday morning, Lt. Gov. Ramsey made clear he didn’t think Gresham’s separate bill was necessary. He added that he’s confident the Senate votes are there to pass the wider-reaching school-choice legislation through the full chamber.
“I’ve influenced all I want to influence. I’m just going to let the committee system work,” the Blountville Republican said. “I do think that a stronger bill, a more expansive bill will come out of the state Senate on the governor’s bill…but I don’t think we need to have parallel bills running.
Asked Thursday whether Ramsey had spoken to her about pulling her competing bill, Sen Gresham refused to comment.
The House Education Committee passed Haslam’s plan, the “Tennessee Choice & Opportunity Scholarship Act,” last week with only minor amendments. The measure, House Bill 190, was approved by the chamber’s Government Operations Committee Tuesday on an 8-4 party-line vote.
The Senate has yet to consider Gov. Haslams plan in any official capacity but it appears very likely that the chamber will expand the legislation to allow more students to use public funds for private school tuition. Education Committee member Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, told reporters Wednesday that he is planning to introduce an amendment to do just that.
Both the governor’s bill and the larger-scale programs floated by Senators Gresham and Kelsey would set up a mechanism to divert state education funding to pay for certain students to attend private schools instead of their local public schools, with the differences coming in terms of which students are eligible and how many vouchers are awarded.
Haslam’s legislation, the result of a year-long task force study, places very specific limits on eligibility for school vouchers that the governor has made clear he wants to keep in place. Under the plan, only students whose low family income already qualifies them for free school lunches and who attend the bottom 5 percent of Tennessee schools would be eligible. Haslam’s bill also caps the total number of vouchers the state could hand out at 5,000, starting next year and increasing to 20,000 by 2016.
By comparison, Gresham’s plan would have raised the family income cutoff to include middle-class families making up to $75,000 dollars a year, while scrapping the language on school performance and removing a cap on the number of vouchers entirely by 2016.
Sen. Kelsey has indicated he thinks the numbers in Gresham’s plan would be in the ballpark for what he might propose.
It is unclear exactly how much support Kelsey’s amendment would have, but Stacey Campfield, a Knoxville Republican who also sits on the Senate Education Committee, told TNReport Thursday that he, too, favors the state giving school-choice vouchers to more students than what the governor is proposing.
“As of right now, he has the votes, [the amendment’s] going on,” said Campfield.
The committee is scheduled to look at Gov. Haslam’s proposal, sponsored in the Senate by Mark Norris as SB196, next week. But even if an expanded version emerges, uncertainty remains over how the Senate version would be reconciled with the legislation on the House side.