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VOL. 38 | NO. 2 | Friday, January 10, 2014

Haslam to decide on school vouchers next week

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NASHVILLE (AP) - Gov. Bill Haslam won't announce his decision about whether to support school voucher legislation until next week, when state lawmakers return into session.

The Republican governor last year supported a voucher program limited to students from low-income families attending failing schools. Haslam had that measure withdrawn when Senate Republicans sought to expand to a larger number of children.

Haslam told reporters in Memphis on Thursday that he still favors what he calls a "measured approach," to vouchers, which give parents public money to pay for private schools.

"There's a lot of people interested in vouchers, both pro and con," Haslam said. "At the end of the day, we want to come up with the best idea.

"Last year, we didn't hear another approach that we thought made sense, given everything else we have going on in education," he said.

Haslam's bill last year would have set the income limit to about $4 3,000 for a child from a family four, while Senate Republicans sought to expand eligibility to families with an income of $75,000.

And the governor's plan would have capped the program at 5,000 students in the first year, with a gradual expansion to 20,000 children by 2016. The Senate version would have set no limit.

The governor said he's been in talks with lawmakers about the voucher question, but no consensus has been reached.

Democrats have been among the most vocal critics of voucher proposals.

"I don't know why we should subsidize wealthy people to send their kids to private school," said House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner of Nashville. "That's what they ultimately want."

Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey of Blountville has said he favors a broader program, while fellow Republican House Speaker Beth Harwell of Nashville has remained largely neutral on the issue.

"I will defer on what the committee structure thinks is best for the st ate overall," Harwell said. "My bottom line is if you can prove this is going to help even one child learn more, I'm for it. That's what I've always felt in education."

By running his own legislation last year, Haslam had the power to withdraw it when it looked like the measure was slipping from his grasp. Harwell said she expects Haslam continue to hold considerable clout on the issue should he decide to take an active role on vouchers.

"I doubt the governor would allow anyone to drive the agenda if it's his piece of legislation," she said.

The Legislature convenes Tuesday.

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