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VOL. 128 | NO. 57 | Friday, March 22, 2013

Competing School Voucher Bill Withdrawn

LUCAS L. JOHNSON II | Associated Press

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NASHVILLE (AP) – The sponsor of legislation that was competing with Gov. Bill Haslam's to create a school voucher program withdrew her bill on Wednesday after proponents of a broader program decided they want to focus on the governor's plan.

The measure withdrawn by Sen. Dolores Gresham from the Senate Education Committee sought to increase the income limit for eligibility to about $75,000 for a family of four, up quite a bit from the $42,643 envisioned by the Republican governor.

The bill also had no limitation on growth, where Haslam proposes to limit the program to 5,000 students in failing schools in the academic year that begins in August, and grow to 20,000 by 2016.

Gresham, a Somerville Republican and chair of the committee, didn't give a reason for withdrawing the bill but told reporters after the hearing that she may bring it up again before the end of the session.

"We'll see what the Legislature's will is," she said.

Justin Owen, president of the Beacon Center of Tennessee, a free market think tank that is advocating for a broader voucher program in Tennessee, told The Associated Press that proponents wanted the Gresham bill withdrawn to focus on the governor's proposal.

"The goal for us now is to have that dialogue as it relates to the governor's proposal, and not get distracted by this bill versus that bill," he said. "Let's just have a discussion about how broad the program should be. It just clarifies the debate.

The Beacon Center and the state chapter of the American Federation for Children are spending close to $1 million on an advertising campaign to promote more widely available vouchers than envisioned under Haslam's plan.

"The governor has taken leadership and I don't think there was any intention on the part of the coalition to pass a bill that ran counter to the governor's," Owen said. "The goal was to show legislators what an expanded program would look like and show that there was support for it."

Critics have said they're uncomfortable with the idea of voucher programs taking needed money from public schools and giving them to private schools to educate children.

Last year, Haslam persuaded the Legislature to defer taking up voucher proposals while a task force he appointed studied the various options about which families should be eligible to use public money.

Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey has said he expects to see a compromise on the voucher legislation.

"A voucher bill will pass, it may be somewhere in between," said the Blountville Republican. "I've actually talked to both sides to see where we can come up with a compromise."

Haslam's measure was delayed in the committee on Wednesday.

Associated Press writer Erik Schelzig contributed to this report from Nashville.

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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