NASHVILLE, Tennessee — A proposal to create a school voucher program stalled in the House on Thursday despite efforts to drum up support among wary rural lawmakers by limiting the areas of Tennessee where parents could receive state money to pay for private school tuition.
Republican Rep. Bill Dunn of Knoxville became emotional when he announced from the well of the House chamber that his multiyear effort to offer school vouchers to parents of children in failing schools did not have enough votes to clear the GOP-controlled chamber.
The chamber did not take up a series of proposed amendments, including one that would apply the measure only to Tennessee's four largest counties, or even to just Shelby County in the southwestern corner of the state.
Opponents argue that the $7,000 voucher per eligible child would siphon funding from cash-strapped public schools.
"The Republican plan to divert much-needed funds from public schools to private schools has failed," said state Democratic Party Chairwoman Mary Mancini.
House Speaker Beth Harwell, a Nashville Republican who had led an earlier charge to allow more charter schools in Tennessee, supported making the voucher proposal a pilot program for schools in Memphis.
"People fight any type of change in education, but yet the changes we have made over the years have really turned our education system around," she said.
House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, who supported the bill, said the divide among Republicans ran largely along rural and urban lines.
"It had enough rural people against it that we couldn't get it done," the Chattanooga Republican said. "But narrowing it down to just the Shelby County system met with some resistance, too."
Republican Gov. Bill Haslam had supported the limited voucher proposal, but hadn't actively lobbied lawmakers to approve it.
"Our education policy has never been based around vouchers passing," Haslam said. "Charters are a really important piece, vouchers could have been, but most of our kids are going to be in traditional public schools."
Dunn parked the bill on the clerk's desk, meaning it could be brought up for debate later in the session if it starts gaining new support.
The Senate overwhelmingly approved its version of the bill last year, and Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey told reporters earlier in the day that the upper chamber had been willing to accept even the most limited version of the bill.
"I just do believe that if you're a young African-American mother, and you're in Memphis and you have to get up every day and want something for your little boy or two little boys, but yet they have no other choice, because of their means, (than) to go down to that failing school, then they need that alternative," said Ramsey, R-Blountville.
Proponents of the voucher measure had been carefully counting votes all week amid wintry weather to see if they could reach the 50 votes needed to pass the measure. The return of one voucher supporter, Republican Rep. Jeremy Durham of Franklin, didn't make matters any less complicated.
Durham had been away for two weeks while seeking what he described as medical and pastoral attention amid a sexual harassment investigation.
"It would have been bad to pass it with 50 votes and have Jeremy Durham be the 50th vote," McCormick said.