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Dramatic committee vote sends school vouchers to Tennessee House floor

Nashville school board member Will Pinkston stands by Lyn Hoyt, president of Tennesseans Reclaiming Educational Excellence, on Monday on the steps of Legislative Plaza during a rally against vouchers in 201
Nashville school board member Will Pinkston stands by Lyn Hoyt, president of Tennesseans Reclaiming Educational Excellence, on Monday on the steps of Legislative Plaza during a rally against vouchers in 201
Courtesy of TREE

After a dramatic recount of a close vote in the House Finance Committee, Tennessee is one step closer to approving a school voucher program that would allocate public money to pay for private schooling for some students.

Lawmakers attributed Tuesday’s 11-10 vote to advocacy and special interest groups as vouchers moved beyond the House committee level for the first time in history. The bill now goes to the full House, where supporters and foes already are beginning a full-court press on behalf of their positions.

The intensity of discussions often led to confusion throughout Tuesday’s three-hour meeting. Even the final tally had to be recounted when the clerk came up with more votes than the number of committee members present.

After the critical vote, Rep. Bo Mitchell, a Nashville Democrat who voted against the bill, and Majority Leader Gerald McCormick of Chattanooga, who voted in favor, had to be physically separated as they continued the debate in raised voices.

Lawmakers expect the intensity of discourse to be repeated on the floor of the House, where the vote is also expected to be close. However, Rep. Bill Dunn, the Republican Knoxville sponsoring House Bill 1049, believes he has the necessary votes.

This is the farthest vouchers have come in Tennessee in six years of legislative debate, passing in the Senate three of those years. Because the Senate approved the bill during the first half of the current 109th General Assembly, it needs only House approval to go to the governor’s desk. Gov. Bill Haslam has indicated he would sign the measure.

Dunn attributes the difference this year to a strong showing of supporters, most of whom traveled to the Capitol from Memphis with the advocacy group Black Alliance for Educational Options.

“I think over time, people see that this is the way to put the children first,” Dunn said. ” And I think we saw that people from different communities that are seeing the results of children not getting the education they need — they stepped up this year.”

Eleven speakers testified about the bill. Of the five speaking in favor, four were Christian ministers from Memphis who traveled with BAEO, and one was Rep. John DeBerry, a Memphis Democrat.

Six speakers testifying against vouchers included a public school parent, a public school teacher, a student from the University of Tennessee, a representative of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, and a Christian minister who is pastor of Rep. Charles Sargent’s church in Franklin. Sargent, who chairs the panel, ultimately voted in favor of the bill, despite his pastor’s position.

Following the vote, Mitchell said he believes the bill would have failed in a subcommittee last week had the panel not been restructured this year by House leaders and had the vote not been cast while Rep. Curry Todd, a Republican expected to vote against vouchers, was absent while recovering from surgery. The subcommittee ultimately approved the measure on a voice vote.

“The folks back home need to know the vote and the manner in which this committee took place today,” Mitchell said. “That was not democracy at its finest today, what we saw.”

Known as the Opportunity Scholarship Act, the bill would make vouchers available to students zoned to Tennessee’s bottom 5 percent of public schools, beginning with 5,000 students in the program’s first year and 20,000 students by the 2019-2020 school year. (Read Chalkbeat’s explainer on vouchers.)

Because Memphis has the state’s highest concentration of low-performing schools, that city would be most impacted by a voucher law. However, other cities that could be affected include Nashville, Knoxville, Chattanooga and Jackson.

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