Local News

Story published: 03-19-2013 • Print ArticleE-mail Story to a Friend

Does county support or oppose vouchers?

By Karen Sells
Assistant Editor

Heated calls from Gov. Bill Haslam’s office and a closer look at proposed legislation have Washington County reversing its stance on school vouchers.

Last month, school board members of the Joint Education Committee requested and received a recommendation for the full commission to support a resolution the Board of Education adopted in 2011 opposing any legislation to create a voucher program in Tennessee that would divert money intended for public education to private schools.

However, action on the resolution was deferred at the February meeting of the county commission. Mayor Dan Eldridge said there has since been a lot of communication between Nashville and Washington County.

“Washington County ended up being in the crosshairs,” Eldridge said during last week’s Joint Education Committee meeting, referring to calls he received from Haslam’s office and the state Department of Education arguing the county’s resolution does not recognize the intent of the bill.

“In my opinion, they are exactly right,” Eldridge said. “It does not fairly represent the governor’s legislation.”

According to the Tennessee Choice and Opportunity Scholarship Act, as reflected in House Bill 190 and Senate Bill 196, school vouchers will be available only to the lowest income students in the bottom 5 percent of schools statewide in overall achievement.

Eldridge said Washington County would not be affected until or unless one of its schools drops to the bottom 5 percent.

“If Washington County is not affected, it’s hard to oppose an effort to help other students,” he said. “Sen. Rusty Crowe is looking for direction from Washington County at this point, and has asked why we would oppose it.”

One answer might be the call for a united effort against the legislation Crowe and State Reps. Matthew Hill (R-Jonesborough) and Micah Van Huss (R-Johnson City) issued during a called Board of Education meeting Feb. 4, one week after the bill was filed.

Local leaders were encouraged to form a coalition to oppose the legislation, though Crowe predicted during the meeting that Haslam’s support will make the bill “hard to derail.”

It appears state legislators have had a change of heart about legislation they initially thought would end up being a cost with no benefit to Washington County.

Commissioner Lee Chase made a motion for Joint Education Committee members to rescind the resolution.

“We got the impression this bill is moving forward,” Chase said. “I’m not asking you to support the governor’s resolution, but I am asking you to rescind the opposition.”

Commissioner Mark Larkey seconded the motion, which passed with approval and no comments from Board of Education members David Hammond and Mary Lo Silvers, who have twice voted in Board of Education meetings to oppose the legislation.

“In all fairness, there are amendments that could have statewide effects, but we’re just talking about this (initial bill),” Chase said.

Meanwhile, during last week’s county Budget Committee meeting, Commissioner Ethan Flynn made a motion to present to the full commission a resolution supporting the proposal, which was seconded by Commissioner Mitch Meredith and passed unanimously.

“The bill on vouchers is being opposed, but it has no effect on Washington County,” Flynn said.

Now, a month after deferring a decision on opposing the voucher program, commissioners will be asked at their March meeting to consider a resolution in support of the proposed legislation.