- Associated Press - Monday, April 20, 2015

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - A state school voucher proposal that failed in the last two Tennessee General Assembly sessions is gaining support as it approaches a key committee in the final days of this year’s legislative session.

If it passes in the House Finance Subcommittee on Tuesday, it will be sent to the full finance committee.

A similar bill failed there last year, but sponsors believe if the legislation passes the subcommittee, it will win approval in the next committee and on the House floor because it has gained more than 30 co-sponsors in the last few days. Lawmakers hope to adjourn this week.

The voucher proposal, or “opportunity scholarship,” would let parents move a child from a failing public school to a private school with funding from the state.

“Tennesseans continue to register their support for school choice and have impressed upon their elected representatives the importance of extending quality school options to parents and families who need them most,” said Brent Easley, state director for the Tennessee chapter of StudentsFirst, a national education reform group.

“Now, with over one-third of House members signing their names in sponsorship of this legislation, it seems clear that representatives stand ready to act on this bill.”

Before it was amended to delay the plan, the original version of the House bill was similar to an unsuccessful measure Republican Gov. Bill Haslam proposed last year.

The legislation sought to open eligibility to low-income students in districts that have a school in the bottom 5 percent of failing schools.

Haslam’s proposal was approved in the Senate last year, but the House version was unsuccessful. The governor also failed to pass voucher legislation in the previous session.

The companion to the House voucher proposal passed the Senate last month. The main difference is that the House bill would delay the voucher program for a year.

Rep. Mike Harrison chairs the House Finance Subcommittee. The Rogersville Republican said he plans to try to add another amendment expanding eligibility to the bottom 10 percent of failing schools - the provision that helped kill the proposal in the House Finance Committee last year.

Harrison said he’s not trying to kill the legislation, but simply provide more opportunity.

“Unless that amendment goes on, I can’t vote for it,” Harrison said.

House sponsor Bill Dunn acknowledged the vote will probably be close, but he hopes committee members will do what’s best for students.

“Some of these children are in schools where over 90 percent of the children are not proficient,” said Dunn, R-Knoxville. “We’ve got to give them an opportunity. And I just hope the Legislature steps up and puts the students before the system.”

Opponents of vouchers say the money should be used to improve public schools.

“My opposition is mainly based on financial issues,” said House Democratic Leader Craig Fitzhugh of Ripley. “I feel like if we open that door for vouchers, all it’s going to do is take money out of an already small pot of money for public education, and stretch it very thin.”

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