House majority leader believes Tenn. voucher plan has a shot

by Lucas L. Johnson II Associated Press | 2/13/2015, 12:38 p.m.
House majority leader believes Tenn. voucher plan has a shot

NASHVILLE – A top state House lawmaker says he believes a proposal to create a school voucher program in Tennessee may pass this year after failing in the past two legislative sessions.

Republican House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick of Chattanooga spoke to The Associated Press on Thursday, a day after legislation that gives parents the option to move a child from a failing public school to a private school passed the Senate Education Committee on a 5-1 vote. Two committee members were present but didn't vote.

The measure is similar to one proposed last year by Republican Gov. Bill Haslam, which passed the Senate but failed in the House after attempts to expand its eligibility. Haslam also failed to pass voucher legislation in the previous session.

McCormick said he's not sure how the bill will ultimately look, but he believes it has a chance this year because of continued conversation about "school choice."

"I do think there's more momentum," he said. "Every year that passes, it's more likely that some kind of a voucher bill passes. So I think there probably is more of a chance this year that it could pass."

Critics of vouchers, or "opportunity scholarships," argue that the effort is siphoning off needed money from public schools. But supporters insist the competition is good for families and spurs education improvement overall.

Haslam originally sought to limit the vouchers to students from low-income families attending the bottom 5 percent of failing schools.

Under the version that passed the Senate last year — which is the same one that advanced Wednesday evening — if there are not enough students for the available slots, then eligibility would be opened to low-income students in districts that have a school in the bottom 5 percent.

The companion bill failed last year in the House Finance Committee because there were many lawmakers opposed to it expanding eligibility to the bottom 10 percent of failing schools if slots are left.

Sen. Brian Kelsey, a Germantown Republican and sponsor of this year's voucher proposal, said he's optimistic about the bill's chance of passage this session.

"My hope is that we can get the bill all the way through the House Finance Committee this year and for a House floor vote," he said.

Kelsey said he hasn't spoken with Haslam about the current proposal, but he has sent a draft to the governor's staff.

Haslam spokesman Dave Smith told the AP in an email Thursday that the administration has not reviewed Kelsey's proposal, but that the governor remains supportive of vouchers.

"The governor's been clear about what he supports," Smith said. "For the past two years he proposed legislation to offer opportunity scholarships to low-income students in the lowest-performing schools, and still thinks that's the best approach."