published Thursday, March 14th, 2013

Competing voucher bill gearing up in Tennessee Legislature

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The Republican sponsor of a measure competing with Gov. Bill Haslam’s to create a school voucher program in Tennessee says she’s convinced the initiative should be broader than what the governor is proposing.

His measure would 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.

The proposal Sen. Delores Gresham plans to present in the Senate Education Committee as early as next week would increase the income limit for eligibility to about $75,000 for a family of four, which is quite an increase from the $42,643 envisioned by Haslam’s proposal. The bill also has no limitation on growth.

When reporters asked Gresham about her proposal Wednesday evening, she said she had talked to the Republican governor about the competing proposals, but didn’t elaborate on what was discussed.

“The governor and I are on the same page,” said the Somerville Republican and retired Marine lieutenant colonel. “We both believe that we should do this. The only difference is to what degree. It’s ... my conviction that it should be broader.”

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.

Before announcing that he would sponsor a bill on vouchers in January, Haslam had been undecided about whether he would take the lead on the issue or if he would let lawmakers control the measure.

The governor said earlier Wednesday that he believes his proposal is the “right one.”

“We put a lot of thought into what the right proposal is,” he said. “We do think starting with low-income students in the lowest-performing schools makes sense.”

However, there are some special interest groups that think otherwise. They have spent close to a million dollars on broadcast television, cable and radio advertising to try to persuade lawmakers to pass a voucher bill broader than Haslam’s.

Regardless of which proposal prevails, Gresham said the legislation gives parents an option.

“It is the parents’ duty, right and obligation to educate their children as they see fit,” said Somerville, who chairs the Senate Education Committee. “So when it comes to parents being able to make a choice, I think that’s what all of this is about.”

A recent telephone poll of 650 Tennessee residents conducted by Middle Tennessee State University showed state residents pretty much evenly split on the governor’s voucher proposal.

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