Support for the governor’s school voucher plan is developing into a showdown as lawmakers from both chambers say they’re itching to expand the program beyond Bill Haslam’s wishes.
State Sen. Brian Kelsey, who is a long-time advocate for a wide-ranging taxpayer-funded school vouchers system, is sponsoring the governor’s small-scale bill. He told members of the Senate Education Committee Wednesday night he has a plan ready for a “very expansive” program.
“I’d love to see a statewide bill, but I’m certainly open to discussions on the matter,” he told reporters after the meeting. “We certainly want to help as many low-income children as we can possibly help.”
Vouchers, also known as “opportunity scholarships,” would allow certain students to pay private school tuition using taxpayer dollars. Kelsey, R-Germantown, said his greatest concern is limiting a program to students from failing schools.
Haslam’s proposal would limit the program to low-income students from the worst 5 percent of schools. A half dozen of those schools sit in Nashville and most of the rest are in Memphis.
Haslam told reporters Tuesday he is standing by his proposed voucher program, but wouldn’t say whether he would pull support if the scope of the voucher bill changed.
“I always hate to give ultimatums on things, but like I said, we’re going to be very clear to everyone that we’re for our bill,” he said.
The Senate easily approved an expanded voucher program last time it came before the body in 2011. That legislation faced stiffer resistance in the House of Representatives and eventually died there.
House Speaker Beth Harwell, who is closely aligned with the governor, has said she is “not sure” on vouchers and prefers supporting public education. Rep. Bill Dunn, who is sponsoring the governor’s bill in the House, is also eager to offer up an expanded voucher program but told The City Paper he would hold off until assured there are enough votes to support it.
A recent poll shows a “statistical dead heat” in public support for the governor’s voucher program, with 46 percent opposed and 40 percent in favor, with a 4-percentage point margin of error. The survey from Middle Tennessee State University showed 12 percent of Tennesseans did not know where they stood and the remaining 2 percent declined to answer.