Lack of support in House kills Haslam's vouchers bill

Explaining the votes aren’t there for a school voucher program, Rep. Bill Dunn withdrew from consideration a controversial plan to give students at failing schools taxpayer money to attend private or religious schools. 

The Haslam administration's failure for the second time in two years deals another blow to the governor, whose legislative agenda has muddled through the General Assembly all session.

“I think today the children lost and the system won,” said Dunn, a long-time advocate for school vouchers after pulling the bill from the House Finance, Ways and Means Committee Tuesday morning.

“We’re now in campaign season and we just have to recognize that. I’m not going to give up on the kids and I’m hoping that the governor won’t either and that we’ll be back next year with it,” said the Knoxville Republican.

Some in the legislature have been hungry for a school voucher program for years, leading the governor to appoint a study committee in 2012 to examine what a program could look like in Tennessee. Haslam introduced a voucher program last year then pulled it off the table after Senators toyed with expanding it.

“We knew getting opportunity scholarships passed would be an uphill battle because some legislators wanted a broader bill and some didn’t want a bill at all," said Haslam spokeswoman Alexia Poe. "The governor has said all along that the proposal wasn’t a silver bullet but a piece of a larger strategy to offer more options for choice to families. The governor is disappointed that a bill that made it further than any other voucher proposal has didn’t make it to the finish line.”

The administration made a priority of the voucher bill this year but fought with the House over competing amendments. The bill languished in a key finance committee for weeks while advocates struggled to drum up the necessary votes to move it to the floor. Meanwhile, the Senate approved a voucher plan 21-10.

Dunn blamed the bill’s failure on politics in his chamber.

“I think children can’t vote, but people in the system can and it comes down to politics” in the House. “I commend the Senate for putting the kids first.”