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Leading advocacy group for vouchers renews effort to get voucher program in Tennessee


NASHVILLE, Tennessee — A leading advocacy group for the creation of a school voucher program in Tennessee says it will renew efforts to pass a proposal in the next legislative session, despite failures in the past three.

The proposed "opportunity scholarship" would let parents move a child from a failing public school to a private school with funding from the state.

Gov. Bill Haslam supports such a program and has even proposed legislation to create one. But the proposal and similar measures have struggled because of attempts to expand eligibility instead of a more limited approach, which the Republican governor prefers.

StudentsFirst Tennessee, part of a national advocacy group for school choice, is pushing for a voucher program, preferably "one targeted to educationally at-risk students," said Ted Boyatt, spokesman for StudentsFirst Tennessee.

He said the group believes such a program will give students access to a "quality education and empower families ... with the authority to make the best decisions for their children."

Earlier this month, Republican Sen. Brian Kelsey of Germantown told reporters following a Senate Education Committee hearing on vouchers that he's optimistic the Legislature starting in January could be the one to finally pass a school voucher proposal.

He said one reason is that the new chairman of the House finance subcommittee where the companion bill got stuck in the last session is also a co-sponsor of the legislation he's supporting.

"I've had positive conversations with members of the House," Kelsey said. "I think the House simply needs a chance to vote on this."

Kelsey didn't discuss details of the proposal, but he said it's similar to one that passed the Senate earlier this year.

The House version of that bill seemed to have some momentum toward the end of the session, but the sponsor withdrew it from the House finance subcommittee.

The House measure and the Senate version that passed sought to open eligibility to low-income students in districts that have a school in the bottom 5 percent of failing schools.

The chair of the House finance subcommittee at the time had planned to add an amendment that would expand eligibility to the bottom 10 percent of failing schools, but the measure was withdrawn before he could do so.

Opponents of vouchers say the money should be used to improve public schools.

House Democratic Leader Craig Fitzhugh of Ripley said that in Lauderdale County, one of three that he represents, vouchers would be "catastrophic" because the schools would lose "per-pupil funding for every student who went to private schools."

He said the public schools would still have to maintain the same buildings, programs, transportation and other school infrastructure, even after they lose that money.

"If my school system loses 10 kids to a voucher program, that's $80,000, but they don't have any corresponding savings on buildings or transportation," Fitzhugh said. "They're then forced to find another place to cut, and that's more times than not a teaching position. That leads to larger classroom sizes and a whole host of other issues."

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