- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 5, 2014

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - A proposal to create a school voucher program in Tennessee is advancing in the House despite concerns from some lawmakers that the legislation would be detrimental to public schools.

The measure proposed by Gov. Bill Haslam passed the House Budget Subcommittee 7-6 on Wednesday.

It is slightly different than an original measure brought by the Republican governor that limited the vouchers to students from low-income families attending the bottom 5 percent of failing schools. The measure that passed would expand eligibility to the bottom 10 percent of failing schools if slots are left.

House Speaker Beth Harwell cast the tie-breaking vote to move the legislation.

“Ultimately, I think everyone’s goal here is the same and that is to help children that are in chronically low-performing schools have an opportunity for something better,” said the Nashville Republican.

Haslam withdrew his initial legislation last year when Senate Republicans sought to expand to a larger number of children. The Senate version of the voucher proposal was to be taken up its Education Committee later Wednesday.

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.

In voting against the governor’s bill, Democratic members of the subcommittee noted language that would shift $16 million from public schools to private schools.

While he doesn’t support vouchers, House Democratic Leader Craig Fitzhugh of Ripley has said taxpayers should be able to decide whether they want them, much like a measure that would let voters decide whether their cities or counties allow wine to be sold in supermarkets and convenience stores.

Fitzhugh proposed an amendment Wednesday to do just that, but it failed.

“I … think if we’re going to start diverting local and state public money to private schools, that certainly citizens ought to have the right to have an input,” he said. “It just made natural sense that we have a referendum on that as well.”

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