School voucher proposal stalls in Tennessee House

(Photo: WKRN)
(Photo: WKRN)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) – A proposal to create a school voucher scholarship program to help cover private school tuition for children attending some of Tennessee’s worst public schools was surprisingly withdrawn just before a floor vote in the state House on Thursday.

In a halting voice, sponsor Rep. Bill Dunn of Knoxville told his House colleagues “I am not confident that I have the votes to pass this bill for opportunity scholarships. I am disappointed. I think we just wanted to help some kids.”

Dunn later was asked if he thought the bill still might be brought back up this year for lawmakers after he formally said he wanted to “lay this bill on the Clerk’s desk.”

“I think the session will move on to other matters so I don’t anticipate that,” said Dunn butt then he was asked about next year.

“Next year there will still be failing schools, there will be children on the path to failure, so this bill is still needed,” he told News 2.

The measure, as written, would have provided low income students at low performing schools a government funded scholarship or voucher of up to $7,000 that could be used for tuition at a private school.

The scholarships, or vouchers, could be expanded in coming years but capped at 20,000 students.

Critics contend the bill would potentially take away hundreds of millions of dollars of public school funding over the course of several years.

“I am afraid if we pass vouchers you will be seeing a lot of cities having for raise property or sales tax and think that is not a conservative route as Republican,” said Rep. Byrd, who has served 33 years as a teacher, coach and principal in rural Tennessee. “We are the fastest improving state and too me we have got some things that are working, so why disrupt that process right now?”

Supporters counter that kids can’t wait for their schools to get better.

Tennessee Democratic Party Chair Mary Mancini released the following statement after Governor Haslam and Republican backed voucher bill failed in the House:

Democrats know that public money should be used for public schools so once we are delighted that our work to stop vouchers, the Republican plan to divert much-needed funds from public schools to private schools, has failed. It’s abundantly clear that all public schools in Tennessee simply do not have the same resources. Some are palaces with the most up-to-date technology available while others cannot supply a textbook to every child. Until this inequity is addressed and every child in every Tennessee zip code has access to an equal, quality public education, diverting public dollars away from public schools is not be an option.

A previous vote on Monday of this week was delayed as supporters worried that a flood of proposed amendments could place doubt in what is expected to be a close vote.

Dunn earlier this week said he planned to make a change to the proposal that would limit its effect to the state’s four biggest counties: Shelby, Davidson, Knox and Hamilton.

Another proposed change would allow the vouchers only in Shelby County.

The Senate overwhelmingly approved its version of the bill last year, and would have to agree to any House changes.

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