- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 26, 2014

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - Gov. Bill Haslam’s proposal to create a school voucher program in Tennessee advanced in the Senate on Wednesday, even though lawmakers still have to work out differences in eligibility requirements before the measure eventually heads to his desk.

The legislation was approved 8-1 in the Senate Education Committee. It differs slightly from the companion bill that was withdrawn from consideration in the House Finance Committee.

The Republican governor originally sought to limit the vouchers to students from low-income families attending the bottom 5 percent of failing schools. Under the new version, if there are not enough students for the available slots, then eligibility would be opened to low-income students in districts that have a school in the bottom 5 percent.

The House version would expand eligibility to the bottom 10 percent of failing schools if slots are left.

Lawmakers in both chambers say they hope to work out the differences so a school voucher bill can pass this year.

“I think people realize that when it comes to opportunity for these children we want to get the best opportunity we can, and I think that everybody will work well together to make sure that we have some program in the final analysis,” said Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville, who is carrying the legislation for the governor.

House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick is a co-sponsor of the House version. He said before the Senate vote that the decision to withdraw the measure from the House Finance Committee was “just parliamentary procedure to wait for the Senate to … work out some of the details.”

“Hopefully the Senate will come up with something we can just concur with, and that will be the simplest process,” said McCormick, R-Chattanooga.

Democrats have been among the most vocal critics of vouchers - or so-called “opportunity scholarships” - which give parents the option to move a child from a failing public school to a private school, with the state providing funds for tuition. They say more funds should be given to public school systems to educate students rather than private schools.

“We keep taking things away from our public school systems,” said Sen. Charlotte Burks, a Monterey Democrat and the lone vote against the Senate version. “And every time we do that we weaken our public school systems.”

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