Amendment, Details Could Torpedo Tennessee Voucher Bill

Although vouchers enjoy broad support among lawmakers in Tennessee, a dispute between legislators and Governor Bill Haslam could result in the proposal to launch the program dying before passage. At issue are the types of schools that would qualify to accept vouchers both under Haslam’s original proposal and the expansion amendment introduced by Senator Dolores Gresham and Brian Kelsey.

Under the original measure, only one Muslim school in the Memphis area would qualify to accept voucher students. If the amendment is adopted, that number would be expanded somewhat — something that concerns some of the bill’s supporters and Haslam himself. So much so, that the Governor has indicated that he will pull the proposal from consideration if Gresham and Kelsey are successful in amending it, thereby killing any chance of a voucher program in Tennessee for this legislative session.

Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville, sponsor of the Haslam’s bill in the Senate, said the governor has been more explicit in discussions with lawmakers on withdrawing the measure.

There have been alternative bills filed, but the governor’s bill is funded in the governor’s budget proposal for next year. That means the alternative would face a more difficult time in making it through the Finance Committees of the House and Senate.

Haslam’s bill limits “opportunity scholarships,” as the vouchers are known in the state, only to students who are enrolled in the bottom 5% of the state’s schools and qualify for the federal reduced price and free lunch program. The measure would also place a cap of 5,000 on the total number of outstanding vouchers for the first year of the program, raising the limit to 20,000 in 2016.

Kelsey’s amendment calls for a much more ambitious program that allows students attending all public schools in Tennessee to apply for a voucher to enroll in a school elsewhere. It would likewise nearly double the maximum income requirement to $75,000 for a family of four and would do away with all annual voucher caps.

The Murfreesboro Post, meanwhile, reported that Senate Republican Caucus Chairman Bill Ketron of Murfreesboro, and Sen. Jim Tracy, R-Shelbyville, are concerned that Muslim schools could qualify for scholarships. The article listed several in Nashville and Memphis as potentially eligible to accept vouchers and one in Knoxville, Anoor Academy. But Tracy said Monday that, after research by his staff, it appears only one Muslim-oriented school — Pleasant View School in Memphis — would be eligible under Haslam’s bill. The bill says vouchers can be accepted by schools in three categories as classified by the Department of Education. Schools would also have to be accredited through the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. Only Pleasant View apparently meets the criteria, Tracy said, and most other Muslim schools are in a fourth category under the classification system.