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What will happen to the big education bills the GOP dropped the ball on last year?

Unfinished Business



How super can a supermajority be if it can't push through its pet education initiatives? That was the question at the end of the last General Assembly, as GOP infighting derailed two bills with high-powered support that observers believed would pass without too much trouble.

When lawmakers reconvene in January, some of the issues behind the bills will likely be back on the table. Given the partisan squabbling that sidetracked them last session, though, they now loom as tests of GOP resolve.

Last year, Gov. Bill Haslam made a push for the so-called voucher program. So far, the governor's office has offered nothing definitive on whether he will pick up where he left off. "We're in the process of working on our legislative agenda," a spokeswoman says.

The program didn't get as far as the governor planned last spring. Before the legislature adjourned, a band of Republican lawmakers in the Senate planned to hijack Haslam's limited proposal offering "opportunity scholarships" (a term supporters are using to rebrand vouchers) to as many as 5,000 low-income students at the state's worst schools.

While some on the left argued the system would rob school districts of students and spend tax dollars sending those children to private and parochial schools, others on the right wanted the program extended even further — say, to a family of four making $75,000 a year.

Never an enthusiast of "opportunity scholarships," Haslam had managed to stave off both sets of lawmakers the year before by assigning a task force to study vouchers. This time, he said he wanted to keep his limited plan as-is. When that warning didn't work, he had it yanked from consideration.

The move embarrassed legislative Republicans, who up until that point had avoided stepping on the governor's toes. But senators say they're ready to try again. That includes Sen. Brian Kelsey, who led the charge for a more wide-ranging plan before catching blame for its setback.  

"I remain open to negotiation on that bill," says Kelsey, the Germantown Republican who has pushed the issue without success for years. "I look forward to having an open dialogue about it."

He isn't the only one looking for dialogue. Outside interests plan to join the fight for vouchers, including a group dubbed School Choice NOW (backed by the Beacon Center, a free-market think tank) and the Tennessee Federation for Children.

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, who controls the Senate, says he's willing to go with either a large- or small-scale voucher plan next year. He says he doesn't know where the governor stands on giving the bill a second try.

"We'll still have the same fight," he says. "It's whether we're going to hold it to 5,000 or make it more expanded."

But House Speaker Beth Harwell says she's not too keen on pushing forward with giving away vouchers for students to use at private schools. Neither is the governor, she says. After four years of focusing on education reforms and beginning to see increases in student test scores, the Nashville state representative says it may be time for a break.

"I do think that we've done quite a bit in education over the last couple years," Harwell says. "It's time for us to implement fully all the change that we've put in place. I don't foresee that [vouchers are] going to be one of the things that the governor pushes this year."

Harwell has her own bill she'd like to see passed this time around.

Her pet legislation — the charter school authorizer bill — fell victim to a power play last session in a tug-of-war with Ramsey, then trying to push a judicial redistricting bill through the House. When recalcitrant House members resisted and killed the bill, Ramsey retaliated by taking aim at Harwell's proposal and keeping it from a floor vote.

Now Ramsey says he's ready to take up the speaker's signature education bill — the very same proposal he held hostage in the 11th hour on the last day of session six months ago.

"I'm happy, let's go with it. All that just got caught up at the end and all kinds of things," says the lieutenant governor, who had gone weeks without speaking to the House speaker after robbing her bill of passage. "But that's part of the political process, and it will work out."

Harder to work out will be the education community's concerns over the bill's proposal. Harwell wants a state panel to approve rejected charter schools, an idea that became an outgrowth of ongoing tension between the state and the Metro Nashville Board of Education over the board's repeated rejection of Great Hearts Academy's charter school last fall.

Those tensions have largely calmed between the school district and the state. But MNPS doesn't want to see Harwell's bill pass — particularly if it targets big cities like Nashville and Memphis.

"They seem determined to do stuff that's not constitutional in how narrowly they draw up these bills," said Will Pinkston, a former high-ranking official in ex-Gov. Phil Bredesen's office who now serves on the school board. "There's a potential to wind up in court."


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