Pro-school voucher groups reignite efforts in TN state legislature

Proponents of a controversial school voucher program in Tennessee have rolled out a new statewide campaign as they look for a different result during the next legislative session.

Beacon Center of Tennessee and the Tennessee Federation for Children — which last year spent lavishly on state legislative candidates and waged an expensive voucher advertising blitz to no avail — are behind the campaign dubbed School Choice NOW.

The pro-voucher coalition, which has already held events in Memphis and Knoxville, on Tuesday stopped by Hendersonville where a handful of parents and private school leaders delivered a familiar "school-choice" message on the idea of using public dollars to attend private schools.

"There are students who do very well in the programs we offer here and other private schools, and there are students who flourish in public education," said William Slater, headmaster of Hendersonville Christian Academy. "All those choices should be available to every single parent in Tennessee. It shouldn't just be determined by a zip code."

But in Tennessee, voucher backers have annualy seen their efforts stall in the General Assembly even though both chambers are dominated by Republicans, which traditionally support the concept of what proponents call "opportunity scholarships."

A split among moderate and conservative Republicans over the scope of the program doomed legislation this past spring.

Gov. Bill Haslam supported a version that would have given eligibility for scholarships to low-income students who qualify for federal free and reduced lunches. As many as 5,000 vouchers would have been available the first year, ramping up to 20,000 by 2016.

The most ardent voucher proponents, though, led by Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, wanted 10,000 scholarships available during year one and the eligibility income-threshold to go to $75,000.

In the end, both versions fizzled, and Republicans avoided a showdown.

Prospects could be better this year, however. Kelsey told WPLN-FM he hopes Haslam's voucher proposal would pass during the next session, and wouldn't be submitting his own.

"No, I'm very open to negotiations on Governor Haslam's bill, and I'm very glad that he sponsored the bill, and I'm open to negotiations on what exactly it will look like," Kelsey said.

Meanwhile, the voucher lobby is still sizing up the politics..

Tony Niknejad, government affairs associate for the Tennessee Federation for Children, said the campaign is currently focused on "getting parents engaged" when asked about the type of voucher program his group supports.

"Where parents drive that conversation, we'll wait and see," he said. "But we're not pushing a specific approach at this time."


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