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Disagreement Runs Deep Over School Vouchers

The philosophical lines on school vouchers are so distinct and the passions on both sides so pronounced it probably shouldn’t be surprising that even guns in bars crept into the debate on a voucher bill Tuesday in a Tennessee legislative committee.

House Bill 388, sponsored by state Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, would provide scholarships and school choice for low-income students in the state’s four largest counties. It was the focus of considerable discussion in the House Education Subcommittee. The issue drew familiar themes of rhetoric, but it was flustered Speaker Emeritus Jimmy Naifeh, D-Covington, who brought guns into the conversation.

Naifeh, no supporter of vouchers, told the subcommittee he had read that 65-70 percent of the people in Tennessee are opposed to vouchers.

“I know that doesn’t mean anything to those that are for vouchers, because a larger percentage of people in this state were against guns in bars also, but that didn’t seem to matter, so I guess this doesn’t seem to matter either,” Naifeh said.

Subcommittee Chairman Joey Hensley, R-Hohenwald, asked Naifeh to stay on topic. But Naifeh wasn’t holding back on his recent reading.

“I have also read where private schools are really hoping this passes, because enough of them are in financial trouble, and this may be somewhat of a bailout for them,” Naifeh said.

Dunn’s bill won’t go anywhere until the Legislature reconvenes in January, and Tuesday’s discussion was only for study, but he is prepared to bring the voucher bill up next year, and the debate figures to be just as passionate when the action goes live.

Dunn’s bill, called the Equal Opportunity Scholarship Act, would give low-income students vouchers — or scholarships as they are called — to attend another school in their district. The opportunity would apply only in the state’s four largest counties — Davidson, Shelby, Knox and Hamilton. Advocates for vouchers see it as an innovative way to help educate children who would like an alternative to their current school. Opponents see it as taking money from public schools and subsidizing private schools.

Metro Nashville Schools Director Jesse Register, representing the school boards in those heavily populated counties, spoke in strong opposition to the bill. Register told lawmakers he supported the reforms recently passed by the General Assembly but he flatly opposed school vouchers.

“Vouchers have been around a long time,” Register said. “There is simply no evidence that private school vouchers work.”

Dr. Kenneth Whalum Jr., an at-large member of the Shelby County Board of Education, testified by speakerphone to the subcommittee, advocating vouchers. The Shelby board recently passed a resolution opposing a voucher bill, but Whalum said he will not sign the resolution.

“One reason is I am tired of watching as poor children across our state are continually denied high-quality education because of the behemoth administrative bureaucracy that does more to perpetuate the system than to educate children,” Whalum told the subcommittee. “I assure you the parents I represent would jump at the chance to allow the kids to just have a chance, just have an opportunity at a quality education.”

Whalum said studies opposing school choice vouchers are “inconclusive, at best.”

Rep. Richard Montgomery, R-Sevierville, chairman of the full House Education Committee, wasn’t ready to commit to vouchers.

“I personally am going to be very, very reluctant to support a program like this until we get every bit of information we can possibly get, look at it, evaluate it, and see what the pros and cons are,” Montgomery said. Montgomery had expressed similar discomfort when the bill was considered by the subcommittee in the last session.

The subcommittee also heard from John Husted, secretary of state of Ohio, who was a legislative leader in enacting that state’s EdChoice voucher system. Husted appeared via teleconference.

“I have great respect for what you’re all going through,” Husted told the Tennessee lawmakers. “I was at the beginning of school choice in Ohio, and I know a lot of people question your motives, your motivations, whether you’re a proponent or an opponent.”

Dunn asked his colleagues to consider the way higher education works, where students and their families get to choose the college of their choice and how much better the nation’s colleges stack up in performance when compared to its K-12 schools. Dunn sees that as a strong argument for school choice in the lower grades.

A recent Middle Tennessee State University poll found that West Tennesseans believe their local schools are worse than the state norm, while those in Middle and East Tennessee believe their schools are better than the norm.