published Wednesday, February 19th, 2014

Tennessee lawmakers seek compromise on school voucher bill

Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, left, meets with Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, center, and Chief of Staff Lance Frizzell in the Senate chamber in Nashville. Kelsey is sponsoring a school voucher bill that rivals the more limited proposal by Republican Gov. Bill Haslam.
Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, left, meets with Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, center, and Chief of Staff Lance Frizzell in the Senate chamber in Nashville. Kelsey is sponsoring a school voucher bill that rivals the more limited proposal by Republican Gov. Bill Haslam.
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

NASHVILLE — Lawmakers trying to decide on a limited school voucher program in Tennessee or a broader one say they're close to reaching an agreement on legislation.

Republican Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris of Collierville is carrying a proposal for Republican Gov. Bill Haslam that's limited to students from low-income families attending the bottom 5 percent of failing schools. He had that measure withdrawn last year when Senate Republicans sought to expand to a larger number of children.

The measure now being proposed by Sen. Brian Kelsey is still broader, affecting students attending the bottom 10 percent of failing schools.

Under that proposal, the program would also be opened to anyone interested if the entire number isn't filled by students from low-income families attending failing schools.

However, Norris told The Associated Press on Wednesday that a compromise is close, but that he couldn't elaborate on the specifics of the legislation.

Kelsey's proposal was scheduled to be heard in the Senate Education Committee on Wednesday, but he delayed it. He said he's willing to compromise.

"I feel like I've offered a reasonable compromise and I hope that we can adopt something along those lines," said the Germantown Republican, who also didn't elaborate on the proposal.

Haslam told reporters after a speech in Murfreesboro this week that he's always had some "non-negotiables" with his voucher proposal.

"We want it to be focused on low-income kids and low-performing schools, and we want it to be a measured approach," he said. "Within that, if there's a way to do that, we're obviously willing to look at that."

Democrats have been among the most vocal critics of vouchers — or so-called "opportunity scholarships" — which give parents the option to move a child from a failing public school to a private school, with the state providing funds for tuition. They say more funds should be given to public school systems to educate students rather than private schools.

While he doesn't support vouchers, House Democratic Leader Craig Fitzhugh of Ripley said taxpayers should be able to decide whether they want them, much like a measure that would let voters decide whether their cities or counties allow wine to be sold in supermarkets and convenience stores.

"We should have ... a referendum on this issue," said Fitzhugh, who is proposing such a bill. "We've talked about referendums for things like wine in grocery stores. I would certainly think that people who pay taxes for local schools should have the right to vote whether they want their tax dollars to go to private schools."

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