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Haslam’s Voucher Plan Scrapped

Senate GOP majority leader says members of his caucus tried to ‘hijack’ governor’s legislation

Republican Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam has axed his own school-vouchers proposal for the remainder of the legislative session.

Sen. Mark Norris, who was carrying Haslam’s “Tennessee Choice & Opportunity Scholarship Act,” told reporters Wednesday that the governor decided not to move forward with Senate Bill 196 because some GOP lawmakers refused to back down from their plan to amend the administration-backed measure.

Some Senate Republican have said they’d like to expand the number of students eligible for taxpayer-funded school-choice vouchers beyond what the governor’s legislation offered.

“As majority leader, I had tried to give as much time as possible for reason to prevail, but rather than fewer amendments we received word that there would be more amendments, all of which attempted to broaden the governor’s initiative beyond what he feels is appropriate,” said Norris, a Collierville Republican.

The governor “wanted a more measured approach to introducing vouchers to the state of Tennessee and he didn’t want it to become a political football at the expense of the children it was design to serve,” Norris continued. “If they won’t run their own bill, they shouldn’t try to hijack the administration’s.”

School vouchers would let certain students put state education money toward tuition at private schools. The Haslam administration’s more modest plan would have given vouchers — or “opportunity scholarships”  — to students attending the bottom five percent of Tennessee schools whose family income level already qualified them for free school lunches. The number of vouchers would have been capped at 5,000 for the 2013-14 school year and risen to 20,000 by 2016.

“The administration studied this issue for a year and brought a diverse group of stakeholders to the table throughout that process,” a spokesman for Gov. Haslam said in an email following Norris’s announcement. “As a result of those efforts, the governor believes his proposal fits in best with the state’s overall education reform efforts. Throughout this process, he wanted his bill to be considered on its merit and for substantially different proposals to be considered separately.”

Germantown Republican Brian Kelsey, an outspoken supporter of vouchers on the Senate Education Committee, indicated to reporters in the past that he intended to offer amendments broadening the governor’s plan.

Wednesday, Kelsey called Haslam’s decision to pull the bill a “minor setback.” He went on to suggest that school-voucher legislation may still make its way to the Senate floor before the sessions adjourns for 2013.

“Other vehicles out there…are available for helping low income children, this year, receive opportunity scholarships, and I am fully committed to pursuing those other vehicles,” he said.

Kelsey was short on specifics as to what those “other vehicles” might be, but indicated he could try to modify other legislation that has already passed out of the Education Committee when it reaches the full Senate floor.

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