NASHVILLE — Gov. Bill Haslam's proposal to create a school voucher program in Tennessee continued its progression in the House on Tuesday as the state's largest teachers' union mounted an ad campaign seeking to defeat the measure.
The legislation carried by Republican Rep. Bill Dunn of Knoxville was approved 8-4 in the House Government Operations Committee and sent to the House Finance Committee.
The legislation, called the "Tennessee Choice and Opportunity Scholarship Act," would limit the program to 5,000 students in failing schools in the academic year that begins in August and grow to 20,000 by 2016.
A competing Republican-sponsored measure seeks to broaden the number of students by not limiting participation to low-performing schools, and several special interest groups have spent millions of dollars on ads in support of such a proposal.
However, the Tennessee Education Association has shot back with an ad of its own denouncing voucher initiatives altogether.
The cost of the TEA ad — roughly $40,000 — pales in comparison to the amount of money being spent by special interest groups. But TEA chief lobbyist Jim Wrye said the group is hoping to draw more money to develop more ads.
"We're going to be outspent by the privatizers and the outside money ... that's all there is to it," he said.
Critics have said they're uncomfortable with the idea of voucher programs taking needed money from public schools and giving them to private schools to educate children.
"Diverting public money to private entities strips our public schools of the funds needed to provide a quality education for every child," TEA president Gera Summerford said in a recent op-ed piece.
Meanwhile, the measure competing with the governor's bill would increase the income limit for eligibility to about $75,000 for a family of four, which is quite an increase from the $42,643 envisioned by Haslam's proposal. The bill also has no limitation on growth.
State Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman said Haslam's bill is the more reasonable approach to creating a voucher program in Tennessee.
"I think it's a reflection of the governor's conservative governing principles," he said Tuesday. "He ... wants to take a measured approach and look at data and information and see how things are working, and make decisions based on that."
The companion to Haslam's bill is set to be heard in the Senate Education Committee on Wednesday.