(KNOX COUNTY) A school voucher bill is making its way through the state House, drawing strong opinions along the way.
The school voucher program would pay for students in Tennessee's lowest-performing schools to attend a private school.
To be eligible, students would have to qualify for free or reduced lunches and be zoned for or attend a school that is in the bottom 5 percent of all schools in the state.
The bill passed a key hurdle in the House last week, but opponents say there's still a fight to come.
On Monday evening, a group consisting of parents, teachers and other education advocates met at the KCEA teacher union building in East Knoxville to lay out their opposition to the voucher program.
They say the program will direct valuable dollars away from struggling public schools and into private schools.
Supporters, however, say vouchers will help put kids at struggling schools on the path to success.
Lindsey Hofman is interim principal at First Lutheran School in North Knoxville, which is one of the private schools that could stand to benefit from the voucher program.
While First Lutheran has not yet taken a stance on the voucher program, Hofman said: "I think it's a great opportunity for students who normally wouldn't be able to attend our school because of cost or different things would have an opportunity that they wouldn't normally have."
First Lutheran School costs $6,100 per year for K-12, which is the age range the proposed voucher program covers. According to the bill, "the annual amount of the scholarship will be the lesser of the following: (1) The cost of tuition and fees that would otherwise be charged by the school; or (2) The amount representing the per-pupil state and local funds generated and required through the (Basic Education Program) for the (district) in which the student resides and is zoned to attend."
The bill would offer vouchers to kids only at Tennessee's "priority schools," defined as the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools in terms of academic achievement.
The majority of those schools are in the Memphis area. Only four priority schools are in the WBIR 10News viewing area. Those are Knox County's Green Magnet Academy, Lonsdale Elementary, Sarah Moore Greene Magnet Elementary and Vine Middle Magnet School.
"These kids are failing," said Republican Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, who is the main sponsor of the voucher bill. "They're on a path to failure, and the purpose of vouchers is to give each child and parent an option to find another path that leads to success."
He said this bill has died in previous legislative sessions and he hopes 2016 is the year it passes.
"If a child is considered 'at risk,' you know, in poverty, then they would be eligible to get a voucher so that they could go to another school," he said. "We're zeroing in on the children that are on the path to failure, and the voucher gives them the opportunity for success."
But strong voices oppose the bill, saying the voucher program would take away money and students from schools that need both.
Lauren Hopson, president of the Knox County Education Association teachers union, said the matter is one of a commitment to public education.
"When I get calls every week from teachers in our county, whose students are having to go without basic supplies, I cannot support a program that will further gut the funding of our schools in Knox County," Hopson said at Monday's media conference. "If our legislators are truly committed to supporting and improving public education, they cannot abandon our schools by giving much needed funding away."
Dave Gorman is co-president of a group called SPEAK: Students, Parents, Educators Across Knox County. He and SPEAK are opposed to vouchers.
"They don't show an improvement in academic progress for these students that come to these schools just because of vouchers," Gorman said. "There's not a guarantee. In the meantime, we're losing funding for our public schools."
They pointed out that even if the voucher program only applies to a handful of Knox County schools, those schools will still have the same overhead costs for electricity, heating, etc. The voucher program will take away the dollars with which to help foot those bills, and the district - therefore all the schools - will have to help come up with the difference.
The bill goes before the House Finance, Ways & Means Committee on Tuesday afternoon.
Dunn said the bill could be on the House floor as early as next week.
If ultimately passed and signed into law, the voucher program would start next year, with a cap of 5,000 scholarships in the first year, increasing to as many as 20,000 scholarships - or vouchers - by the 2018-19 school year.