A bill enabling Tennessee students to receive public money to attend private schools advanced Wednesday the furthest it’s come in the perennial legislative battle over school vouchers.
On a voice vote, the House Finance, Ways and Means subcommittee approved the measure following an hour-long debate touching on familiar arguments about school choice and the potential financial impact to public schools.
The bill now goes to the full House Finance Committee, where both proponents and opponents vow to go to the mat. Approval there would send the measure to the House floor for the first time.
The proposal passed in the Senate last year during the first half of the legislative session, and Gov. Bill Haslam has said he would sign the legislation if it reaches his desk.
School vouchers have been on the table for six years running in the Tennessee legislature, passing in the Senate three of those years. However, it’s been stymied in the House, where the bill has never managed to make it out of committee.
Proponents have predicted that 2016 will be the “year of the voucher” — a prediction they’ve also made in past years. This year, however, the measure has gained support from key players, including Rep. Curtis Johnson (R-Clarksville), the new chairman of the House finance subcommittee. He replaced Rep. Mike Harrison of Rogersville, who resigned last year to become executive director of the County Mayors Association of Tennessee.
Known as “The Opportunity Scholarship Act,” the bill would make vouchers available to students zoned to Tennessee’s bottom 5 percent of public schools and allow leftover voucher money to go to any student. The state would provide 20,000 vouchers of up to $5,000 per student by the 2019-2020 school year.
If signed by Haslam, it would become Tennessee’s second school voucher law. Last year, the governor signed legislation that provides vouchers for students with severe disabilities to attend private school or obtain private services. However, that program, which will launch in 2017, is significantly smaller in scope.
Wednesday’s debate retread past legislative discussions on whether vouchers would drain finances from public schools, and whether the $5,000 voucher payment to private schools would in fact provide better options given that most private schools charge more for tuition than that amount. Also, leaders of many well-regarded private schools already have said they won’t accept vouchers.
Supporters argued that vouchers would expand school choice to raise the quality of all public schools through competition. They also contended that the change would largely be “cost neutral,” with the amount of money leaving public schools being offset by fewer students to serve. In addition, about $1,200 would remain with public schools for every student who uses a voucher.
The bill is almost identical to last year’s, though Rep. David Alexander, a Republican from Winchester, told committee members he plans to add an amendment that would forbid using vouchers for certain types of religious instruction, such as anything suggesting that women are inferior to men.
Rep. Bill Dunn, a Knoxville Republican and the bill’s sponsor, said he understands opposition to vouchers, calling any support for public schools “honorable.” However, he said, the vouchers concept isn’t as scary as its opponents believe.
“In higher education, we have the Hope Scholarships, where public money follows the student to the establishment that best meets the family and the student’s needs,” he said. “The Opportunity Scholarship just follows the Hope Scholarship model.”
House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, a Ripley Democrat, said after the meeting that vouchers would have negative impacts. For instance, leftover vouchers could be used by any student, meaning that a student could leave a high-performing public school for private school.
Fitzhugh wants to see the results of the state’s first voucher law known as the Individualized Education Act, as well as school funding lawsuits against the state, before forging on with a new program with unknown consequences. “I think when people really understand what this voucher system is about … there are a lot of questions, especially about the financing of this,” he said. “I think facts our on our side.”
Wednesday’s debate wasn’t limited to legislators, with time provided public input.
Keith Williams, senior adviser to the Tennessee Black Alliance for Educational Options, a pro-voucher advocacy group, traveled from Memphis to make an emotional plea for vouchers. “I’m talking to tens of thousands of parents … saying this is what we want for our children,” said Williams, who has a child in Shelby County Schools. “We want choice! Because people with money have always had choice.”
Nashville parent and education blogger Thomas Weber said adequate funding for public education is the bigger issue. “My kids and their school do not need vouchers, OK?” he said. “They need funding.”
House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick dismissed arguments that Tennessee schools are underfunded. “There will never be enough to make those folks happy,” the Chattanooga Republican said.
McCormick said a vouchers program should be passed and eventually expanded so that more middle-class families can have access to private schools.
“We have waited long enough,” he said.