Haslam to Bring Back School Voucher Bill

LUCAS L. JOHNSON II | Associated Press

NASHVILLE (AP) – Republican Gov. Bill Haslam said Thursday he will support a school voucher bill this legislative session that's similar to a limited measure he proposed last year, even though other GOP lawmakers say they'd like to see something a little broader.

The governor told reporters that his proposal once again will be limited to students from low-income families attending failing schools. Haslam had that measure withdrawn when Senate Republicans sought to expand to a larger number of children.

Haslam said it's important to have a measured approach.

"I think it lets us walk into vouchers," he said. "We want to have an approach that says, let's see what the impact is both on students, and on districts and on overall education progress in Tennessee."

Haslam's bill last year would have set the income limit to about $43,000 for a child from a family of four, while Senate Republicans sought to expand eligibility to families with an income of $75,000.

And the governor's plan would have capped the program at 5,000 students in the first year, with a gradual expansion to 20,000 children by 2016. The Senate version would have set no limit.

Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey said he's still in negotiations with the governor's office about vouchers, which gives parents the option to move a child from a failing public school to a private school, with the state provide funds for tuition.

"We're trying to meet the governor in the middle somewhere," the Blountville Republican told reporters in his legislative office.

Ramsey said he supports setting a 10,000 student cap in the first year, and opening the program up to anyone interested if the entire number isn't filled by students from low-income families attending failing schools.

"So if there's 1,200 left, then it's kind of first come, first serve on that 1,200 – regardless of income," Ramsey said. "I've talked to the governor about this, and that's where we need to end up."

Democrats have been among the most vocal critics of voucher proposals, saying more funds should be given to public schools systems to educate students rather than private schools.

"My major problem with vouchers is financial," said House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley. "When you take away from already a very limited pool of funds, and just frankly give it to a private school, it certainly hurts the public schools."

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