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VOL. 37 | NO. 8 | Friday, February 22, 2013

Tennessee voucher plan advances in House

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NASHVILLE (AP) - A measure to create a school voucher program in Tennessee passed a key House subcommittee Tuesday, touted by supporters as an option for parents trying to provide a better education to children.

The administration bill proposed by Republican Gov. Bill Haslam was approved 6-2 in the House Education Subcommittee.

Under the governor's legislation, the plan — which backers are calling the "opportunity scholarship program" — would be limited to 5,000 students in the school year that begins in August and grow to 20,000 by 2016.

It would be open to students in low-income families, or those who qualify for free or reduced-priced lunches.

Rep. John Deberry, a Memphis Democrat and committee member, shared a story about taking a second job to move his daughter from a failing elementary school to a private school. He said he believes the extra work was worth it because his daughter, now an attorney, got a better education.

However, Deberry said some parents may not be able to do what he did, which is why a voucher program would be beneficial.

"At the end of the day there are parents suffering because they can't get their children out of a school," he said. "This gives them an option."

Opponents of the proposal say voucher programs are unproven and they don't like the idea of taking needed funds from public schools and giving them to private institutions.

They're also concerned the proposal would shield private schools from having to provide services for students' special needs, such as something as simple as providing breakfast, which is customary in most public schools.

"Public schools provide access to resources that include all children," said Rep. John Forgety, R-Athens

A Republican-sponsored bill to create a voucher program passed the Senate in 2011 but was deferred in the House to the following session. When the delay occurred, Haslam had persuaded lawmakers to wait while a task force studied options on school choice.

Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman testified Tuesday that research on voucher programs show that students benefit academically, there's high satisfaction among parents, and that graduate rates have improved among students participating in such programs.

"We have to make sure that we give these students opportunities," he said. "I believe there is enormous ... benefits for students."