By Richard Locker,
April 8, 2014

NASHVILLE — The controversial school-voucher bill jumped its last Senate committee hurdle Tuesday en route to a full Senate floor vote.

The finance committee voted 8-2 to recommend the measure, drafted by Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration and sponsored by Senate Republican Majority Leader Mark Norris of Collierville. But its biggest hurdle is in the House, where it has more opposition.

If approved, starting in August for the upcoming school year, it would allow up to 5,000 children from low-income households attending a school in the bottom 5 percent in academic performance to take their full per-pupil share of state and local funding to pay tuition at participating private schools. The number of vouchers increases to 7,500 in the 2015-16 school year, 10,000 in 2016-17, and 20,000 in 2017-18 and thereafter.

If not enough students from low-performing schools apply in any year, students from any other school in a school district that contains at least one bottom-five low-performing school and whose family incomes qualify them for free or discounted school lunches may apply.

Participation by private schools is voluntary but those who do must accept the per-pupil voucher as full payment for their annual tuition even if their normal tuition rates are much higher.

Senate Democratic Minority Leader Jim Kyle of Memphis said he believes the governor is “trying to do something good for public education” but he is concerned about the impact on Shelby County Schools of vouchers and other programs enacted by the state in recent years that divert children and public funding away from the school district while costs of operating the district remain relatively constant.

“I don’t believe we have a coordinated plan. We don’t seem to have an end game,” Kyle said. “I truly believe there is a place for vouchers in public education. I don’t think people should be punished by their geography because some bureaucrat chose the school district boundary lines …”

He cited charter schools, the state-run Achievement School District that took over several low-performing schools in Memphis, the new municipal school districts, a statewide virtual school and now vouchers, all of which draw students out of the school system.

“Until we have a plan that balances all of this, I believe we are starting down the road without knowing where we are going to end up,” Kyle said.

State Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman said his research into voucher programs elsewhere indicates vouchers have a “positive impact on student achievement, not a major impact, and a very positive impact on parent satisfaction and on graduation rates.”

He said getting a voucher program running by the next school year will be a challenge for his agency, but can be done.

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