Senate Chooses School Vouchers

Republicans approved a plan in the Tennessee Senate Thursday allowing dollars derived from taxpayers to follow low-income students and fund their tuition in the public or non-public schools of their parents’ choosing.

The bill, SB485, would apply only to the state’s four largest counties, including Shelby, Davidson, Hamilton and Knox Counties. It constitutes the state’s first official foray into the realm of school vouchers.

The “Equal Opportunity Scholarship Act” passed Thursday allows low-income students to use public funding to attend private, parochial, charter or different public schools, opening up a larger discussion on school choice.

“It’s going to give them more choices of where they want to go to school,” said Sen. Brian Kelsey, the bill’s sponsor and a Germantown Republican who for the last four years has been pushing the concept. ”They can take these scholarships to whatever public charter school, whatever parochial school, whatever independent school whatever public school within their own system that they want to go to,”

Gov. Bill Haslam touched on the discussion about school choice earlier this year in proposing that the Legislature allow any student — regardless of income level — to enroll at a charter school. Children from low-income families would still be priority enrollees, according to to the legislation. That proposal is still working its way through the committee system.

Shortly after swearing in as governor, Haslam characterized vouchers as “an interesting concept” but said he wouldn’t make the issue a part of his education agenda.

Senate Republicans approved the measure Thursday 18-10 — capturing just one more vote than the 17 needed to approve legislation — falling mainly on partisan lines with only one Democrat, Sen. Douglas Henry, voting in favor.

Four legislators abstained from voting on the bill, including three Republicans — among them, outgoing Speaker Pro Tem Jamie Woodson of Knoxville, who is slated to head up the State Collaborative on Reforming Education, a non-profit now led by former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist.

“We don’t really have clear information on what it means when significant populations of children leave a system. And we don’t know for sure that that will even happen, but because we don’t know those answers right now, I was a little bit uncomfortable voting for it today,” she told TNReport, adding that she still has “very good feelings” about the bill.

SCORE hasn’t taken a position on the bill, but a spokesman said the organization believes choice is an important piece of any comprehensive education reform.

The other lawmakers who declined to vote on the bill were Republicans Sen. Doug Overbey of Maryville and Sen. Ken Yager of Harriman and Memphis Democrat Reginald Tate.

Top Republicans say they favor the idea of school choice, although House Republican Leader Gerald McCormick said his chamber is running out of time to advance its copy of the bill, adding “I don’t know that we’re in an urgent rush to get that done.”

The measure now sits in the House Education Subcommittee which is scheduled to hear the last 37 bills on the agenda next Wednesday before shutting down for the year.

Democrats argued the arrangement would draw too much money out of the traditional public school system. Every time a student takes the scholarship and moves on to a different school, half the government dollars allocated to educating that student will stay with the local school district. The other half of those funds follow them to their new school.

The voucher bill is another one of several “divisive ideas that get us nowhere,” Sen. Andy Berke, a high-ranking Senate Democrat, said on the Senate floor.

“It seems to me it’s not going to be a windfall for that school system,” he said. “They’ve got to come up with the money from somewhere.”

House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, said she’s not worried about using government dollars to pay for the students’ private or alternative school experience because parents will keep the schools in check.

“Keep in mind, that parent is a tax payer and that’s their child,” said Harwell reacting to questions about how to keep private institutions honest if they receive public dollars. “If they care enough to make an active choice in where their child attends school, I suspect they’re going to hold a high standard there as well.”

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, who said he was under the impression that the House version of the bill would have no problem advancing, said he’d personally work on making sure the bill survives the last committee meeting next week.