It all comes down to this Thursday at 9amCST. That’s when the Tennessee House of Representatives is scheduled to vote on a voucher bill that has already passed by the state senate and has the support of Governor Bill Haslam. If passed, the program would provide school vouchers to the neediest of Tennessee families to attend private schools of their choice. The program would be limited to low-income parents whose children attend a school rated in the bottom five percent in the state. Private schools who participate in the program would be required to accept the voucher, valued at about $7,000, as full payment for a year of tuition.
The bill uses yearly enrollment caps to ease the transition of students from public to private schools. Only 5,000 vouchers would be made available the first year, increasing to a cap of 20,000 vouchers by the fourth year. Any year in which the program does not reach its enrollment cap, eligibility will be extended to include low-income families whose attend a successful public school, provided their school district is in the bottom five percent.
Representative William Dunn, who sponsored the bill, told Choice Media that teachers unions were the main obstacle to the bill’s passage. “They’re not afraid to lie about the bill, and so it’s easier for them to whip up the troops when you say such things as ‘this bill has no accountability,’ when you say ‘there are no studies that show this helps children,’ that ‘kids who are already going to private schools will receive the vouchers.’ They just say outrageous things, and it gets people stirred up.”
Although the vote is expected to be close, it’s not likely to break along party lines. When the Senate passed the bill by a vote of 23 to 9, five of the “no” votes were Republicans and four were Democrats. Also, both the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Dunn, and the leader of the anti-voucher faction in the House of Representatives, David Alexander, are Republicans.
The vote is looking close enough that it’s spawned some unusual political choices. Tennessee State Representative Jeremy Durham resigned as House Majority Whip and is currently on a leave of absence after being accused by three women of sending sexually harassing text messages. Durham also supports the voucher initiative. Despite the controversies associated with his support, the pro-voucher side is hoping Durham will return from his self-imposed exile early to vote for the bill.
Education activists across the state will be watching the vote closely. “Hopefully the legislature will choose children over adults,” said Justin Owen, President and CEO of the Beacon Center of Tennessee. Tennessee Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO) State Director Medell Grinter hopes that “legislators will answer the call of students and parents, and pass the Tennessee Voucher Bill, so underprivileged black students can receive a quality education.”
Tennessee Governor Haslam has indicated he would sign the law, saying “I think the worst thing we can do is say that we are going to be satisfied with the way we were doing things. If you are in one of our bottom five percent of schools we know things are not working and we should not accept that, so why not try a new approach.” The Tennessee Lieutenant Governor also voted for the bill in the Senate, in a further show of support from the Haslam administration.