House Skips School-Voucher Bill

Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, was moving right along with discussion of his school-choice legislation in the House Education Subcommittee meeting Wednesday when the panel’s chairman suddenly called for a 10-minute recess.

That recess turned out to be a Republican caucus meeting in the office of Speaker of the House Beth Harwell.

And when members returned to the hearing room, a couple Republicans — Rep. Kevin Brooks, R-Cleveland, and Rep. Richard Montgomery, R-Sevierville, chairman of the full House Education Committee — expressed their belief that Dunn’s bill ought to be sent to a summer study committee, an oft-used maneuver that puts an issue off for another day yet doesn’t kill the legislation.

The bill, HB388, the “Equal Opportunity Scholarship Act,” would allow low-income students in the state’s biggest cities — Memphis, Nashville, Knoxville and Chattanooga — to be given a “scholarship” to attend a public school elsewhere in the district, a public charter school or a non-public school.

The bill passed in the Senate last week 18-10.

But in sorting through just who stood where on the bill, the word “comfortable” kept coming up in the House subcommittee discussion.

“I think if we go to the summer study committee, actually look at it, have the opportunity to bring in people from other states who have been shown the success of it, everybody gets more comfortable,” Dunn said after Wednesday’s meeting.

“That’s the key word down here. You may have all the facts on your side. You’ve just got to get people comfortable.”

Montgomery said during the proceedings if he had a better “comfort zone,” knowing what impact the measure would have on local school authorities, he could move forward with the bill.

When the Senate voted last week on its version of the bill, sponsored by Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, Speaker Pro Tempore Jamie Woodson of Knoxville abstained, saying she was “a little bit uncomfortable” with the bill because of unanswered questions about the impact on a district like hers.

Kelsey has said he is confident that “once the House studies the issue and feels comfortable with the issue they are going to come to the same conclusion we did in the Senate.”

It appears that in broad terms, state government is testing its own comfort level with where it is on education reform.

The Legislature has taken bold steps, enacting tenure changes for teachers, challenging teachers’ collective bargaining rights, considering lifting limits on charter schools and now entertaining one of the hottest potatoes of school reform — vouchers. It’s hard to see where the education reform train stops or if the concept might actually be slowing down given Wednesday’s move on vouchers.

At one point early in Wednesday’s hearing, during discussion of a bill on licensing non-traditional teachers, Rep. Lois DeBerry, D-Memphis, blurted out, “I think we’re doing too much reform around here. I think at the end of the year, all the bills will run into each other.”

Jerry Winters, chief lobbyist for Tennessee Education Association, added later that unionized teachers “are feeling pretty beat down right now.”

“This has been a tough session,”Winters said. “They feel pretty put upon. They feel pretty singled out. And they feel there’s a lot of punitive things happening that are not good for relationships.

“This legislature has burned a lot of bridges.”