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Tennessee school voucher bill dead this session

April 4th, 2013 7:10 am by LUCAS L. JOHNSON II

NASHVILLE — The Republican leader carrying Gov. Bill Haslam's proposal to create school vouchers in Tennessee said he's decided to let it die this session because he's tired of the "gamesmanship."

Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris put the measure on hold Wednesday in a letter to the Senate Finance Committee chairwoman obtained by The Associated Press. Norris said he doesn't want the committee to advance the bill.

The administration proposed to limit vouchers to 5,000 students in failing schools next term; that figure would grow to 20,000 students by 2016.

However, there were attempts to broaden Haslam's proposal, as special interest groups spent thousands of dollars on ads promoting an expansion. Norris said the Republican governor has been adamant about not changing it.

"There's no more time for any more gamesmanship," the Collierville Republican said. "The governor has said from the beginning that he isn't about that. He designed what he thought fit with his education reforms very specifically and wanted to proceed accordingly, and not to play games with it, not to see it become a political football."

Norris said he received several amendments to Haslam's bill on Wednesday, but he said most of them were "more about the adults than the kids."

"In other words, it was more about ... politics than education," he said.

Kimberly Kump, a spokeswoman for the Tennessee Federation for Children, said one of the amendments sought to strike a compromise by limiting the program primarily to Memphis and Shelby County students.

She said the amendment was brought in response to testimony from national experts who advised against restricting the program to low-performing schools, citing experience in states with similar programs.

"We are disappointed that a compromise that contained only one change to the underlying legislation was not sufficient middle ground," Kump said. "It is important to be flexible during the political process and a sad commentary when it is low-income families in our state that are hurt the most."

A separate bill for a more expansive voucher program was withdrawn earlier this session, though supporters have said they wanted to amend the governor's proposal to cover more students.

Before it was withdrawn, the rival measure would have increased the income limit for eligibility from about $43,000 to $75,000 for a family of four, and would have set no limit on growth.

One of the sponsors of that bill, Sen. Dolores Gresham, told reporters after announcing Norris' decision to the committee that she was just "fighting for children to have better educational opportunities."

"The governor and I have always been on the same page," said the Somerville Republican, who also chairs the Senate Education Committee. "We've just been on different paragraphs."

Critics have said they're uncomfortable with the idea of voucher programs taking needed money from public schools and giving it to private schools to educate children.

Last year, Haslam persuaded the Legislature to defer taking up voucher proposals while a task force he appointed studied the various options about which families should be eligible to use public money.

"The administration studied this issue for a year and brought a diverse group of stakeholders to the table throughout that process," Haslam spokesman David Smith said Wednesday. "As a result of those efforts, the governor believes his proposal fits in best with the state's overall education reform efforts."

Republican Sen. Brian Kelsey of Germantown, a co-sponsor of the broader proposal, said there are other vehicles for an expanded voucher program and that he would work to get one passed this session.

Kelsey acknowledged that the governor's move has made the chances to pass a voucher law more difficult. He also rejected the suggestion that he carried responsibility for the failure of the governor's proposal because he refused to accept a more limited version of the bill.

House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, an opponent of vouchers, said he hopes this year is the death of them.

"If we can get a year, certainly cooler heads will prevail, and maybe they'll back off of this issue, because it has such a financial burden to the public schools," said the Ripley Democrat.

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