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Voucher bill passes Senate Education Committee

Students attend a summer program at De La Salle Elementary, a Catholic school in Memphis that has been open to accepting state-funded tuition vouchers.
Students attend a summer program at De La Salle Elementary, a Catholic school in Memphis that has been open to accepting state-funded tuition vouchers.
Grace Tatter

A bill that would permit low-income students in Tennessee to receive vouchers to attend private schools passed the Senate Education Committee Wednesday with little debate.

Senate Bill 122, introduced by Sen. Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown), is similar to a voucher bill approved last year by the full Senate and endorsed by Gov. Bill Haslam before dying in a House committee.

The estimated cost of the voucher program under this year’s proposal would be $185,000, which now sends the bill to the Senate Finance Committee.

The proposed legislation makes vouchers available only to students zoned for the bottom 5 percent of Tennessee schools, most of which are in Memphis. Like last year’s proposal, the number of vouchers provided by the state would increase from 5,000 during the program’s first year to 20,000 two years later.

The vouchers would provide up to $5,000 per student, and private schools accepting the vouchers could not charge additional tuition.

Kelsey originally wanted his 2015 bill to allow more districts without priority schools to opt-in to the voucher program, but nixed that after conversations with the Haslam administration. The governor has said he only will support voucher legislation targeting low-income students.

Follow the status of education-related bills in the 109th Tennessee General Assembly.
Follow the status of education-related bills in the 109th Tennessee General Assembly.

Proponents of school vouchers say parents should have a right to decide where their children will attend school, regardless of their income, and that it’s not fair that only wealthier students or students who are able to earn scholarships are able to attend private schools. Opponents say vouchers take money away from public schools, where it is desperately needed to fund educational programs for all students.

You can read more about the potential impact of vouchers on Shelby County Schools here.

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