Capitol Hill Conversation: Who Will Get Vouchers For Private School?

Feb 25, 2013

The Tennessee Capitol building in Nashville.

The state Legislature will spend time this week hammering out the details of a school voucher bill. Those specifics will determine who will be able to use public money to attend private school. Governor Bill Haslam has said he wants to make vouchers available only to students who attend failing schools and qualify for free or reduced prices lunches. If the governor gets his way, then most of the students who qualify for vouchers will be from Memphis where 69 of the state’s 83 lowest performing schools are located, and 85 percent of students are economically disadvantaged. Additionally, six of the state’s lowest performing schools are located in or around Nashville, six more are in Chattanooga, one is in Knoxville, and one is in Hardeman County.  

But many Republicans at the state Capitol want to make vouchers available to even more children. The house sponsor of the voucher bill, Representative Bill Dunn of Knoxville, says he has had the same conversation over and over with different lawmakers. “What I’ve told people who really want to expand it [the voucher bill] is, ‘Down here votes are everything.’” Dunn recounted. “‘If you can come to me with 50 to 55 votes saying they want the expanded version, then we can talk to the governor about expanding it.’”

Blake Farmer spends a great deal of his time on the floor of the state Legislature in Nashville covering government business for WPLN. “The question that gets asked is, ‘What about the kid who is in a mediocre schools? And the family makes a little bit too much money to qualify? Shouldn’t they also get a voucher?’” Farmer said.

“Something is going to pass,” Farmer said. “But where people come down on how broad a program should be, that has a lot to do with geography, not just party affiliation.”

Democrats largely oppose vouchers, but some from Memphis have come to support them, because they believe they will benefit families in their districts.

“Republicans as a group favor vouchers, but once you start talking about something that would be truly statewide, you’ve got lawmakers in outlying areas who are already hearing concerns from their local school boards,” Farmer said.

Many school boards across the state worry that if vouchers are offered to their students, district schools will suffer. “They might loose students from a class here or there,” Farmer explained. “While the state money walked out the door with that kid, it didn’t get much cheaper to run that school.”