Haslam skeptical over Senate's school voucher bill

Three influential state senators have put together a new plan to create Tennessee's first school voucher program, but Gov. Bill Haslam says he intends to hold firm to his proposal to limit vouchers to needy students in the state's worst schools.

Sen. Brian Kelsey, a Germantown Republican and a longtime proponent of vouchers, filed a measure Thursday that would offer vouchers to the families of poor and working-class students in Shelby, Davidson and eight other counties.

Supporters, who include Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, and Senate Education Committee Chair Dolores Gresham, R-Somerville, tout the proposal as a compromise measure meant to break the impasse that sank voucher legislation in the Senate last year.

But Haslam voiced skepticism to reporters Thursday.

"We like the bill we proposed. We proposed it for a very specific reason," he said. "When Sen. Kelsey told me he was going to file that, I said that's your right. You guys pursue that and see what you can get done. We like our bill."

With their measure, Senate Bill 2025, Kelsey and his co-sponsors have dropped many of the demands they made last spring, when they proposed increasing income limits proposed by Haslam, doubling the number of vouchers available immediately and opening the program to families statewide.

This year, they have proposed legislation that closely mirrors Haslam's plan. Like Haslam, they call for offering 5,000 vouchers in the first year, eventually ramping up to 20,000, and they agree with the Republican governor that eligibility should be limited to students who qualify for free or reduced lunches.

The Senate plan also shares with Haslam's proposal a preference for students enrolled in low-performing schools. But the two measures differ in the definition.

Haslam's measure, Senate Bill 196, would offer vouchers only to students who are zoned or attend schools in the bottom 5 percent. The Senate proposal opens it to students in the bottom 10 percent.

The Senate plan also contains a provision to distribute vouchers to other families if any are left over. Those families would have to meet the same income qualifications but could live anywhere in a county that has low-performing schools.

Kelsey, Gresham and Ramsey all represent areas where families would qualify for vouchers under their proposal but not Haslam's.

State Rep. John Deberry, a Democrat who represents central Memphis, will sponsor the measure in the state House of Representatives.


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