The bill to allow some students to use government vouchers to attend private school passed a major hurdle Tuesday in the House Finance Committee.
The bill still has to pass the full House, but after five years of debate this is the furthest the legislation has ever made it in Tennessee.
It was a heated exchange between lawmakers and citizen speakers at the committee meeting Tuesday evening.
“Let’s not just send life boats out to save a few people while others are left to drown,” said one father with his young son in tow.
“Give that parent the choice to decide where their child’s going to be educated,” said Rep. John DeBerry, “it’s just that simple.”
The bill proposes private school vouchers for up to 20,000 students in poverty who go to schools that make up the bottom five percent.
The argument in favor is about school choice. Some supporters donned yellow scarves at the meeting.
“It seems like some people see children as dollars,” said Rep. Bill Dunn (R, Knoxville) who sponsored the bill, “I see them as human beings and want to give them the best chance to succeed.”
But the more vocal arguments were against the vouchers.
“I do not think that take 70 million dollars or more of public funding out of schools is the best way to fulfill this constitutional obligation,” said a Memphis Public School grad who said the bill would be detrimental to her community.
Opponents also say the vouchers may not even improve achievement and that they take money away from the schools that need it most.
“How are we gonna tell the bottom five (percent of) schools that we are going to take some money away from you and give it to the private schools?” Rep. Craig Fitzhugh asked Rep. Dunn in the question portion of the meeting.
Tuesday some lawmakers said they would be more open to the bill if it excluded religious schools. They don't want taxpayer money to fund religious teachings.
After three hours the House Finance Committee members voted. But a mis-count caused confusion. Fitzhugh, a vocal opponent of the legislation, tried to take the opportunity to quickly move to adjourn the meeting.
Chairman Charles Sargent (R, Franklin) ignored his requests while the vote was recounted.
In the end, House Bill 1049 passed by just one vote, 11-10.
That means the bill will eventually head to the House floor where it's sponsor is hopeful for the 50 votes needed.
“It’s been through so many committees that we’re probably about there if not over,” Dunn said.
The bill has already passed the Senate. Governor Haslam is a known supporter of the bill and Tuesday confirmed he would sign the legislation if it landed on his desk.