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Commission divided on voucher stance

Following numerous discussions, votes and draft resolutions, Washington County commissioners went on record last week as neither opposing nor supporting the Tennessee Choice and Opportunity Scholarship Act.
A resolution to oppose legislation from Gov. Bill Haslam that would provide school vouchers for low-income students enrolled in the bottom 5 percent of Tennessee public schools in overall achievement to attend private schools was recommended by the Joint Education Committee but tabled during the February meeting.
The Joint Education Committee rescinded the recommendation for opposition at its March meeting, with the support of Board of Education members David Hammond and Mary Lo Silvers.
The Budget Committee stepped forward with a recommendation in support of the legislation at the March meeting.
“This act would have no effect on Washington County, recognizing we have no failing schools,” Mayor Dan Eldridge said.
Commissioner Ethan Flynn made a motion to approve the resolution supporting Haslam’s proposed act, which was seconded by Commissioner David Shanks.
Commissioner Steve Light asked if there was any way an amendment to the act could come up and negatively impact the county.
County Attorney John Rambo said Haslam could introduce new legislation at any time, but pointed to section three of the resolution, which urges General Assembly members “…to support the Governor’s efforts to initiate the voucher option as a limited and targeted tool for education reform and to this end to oppose any effort to expand the program beyond the Governor’s limited initiative.”
Commissioner Mark Larkey argued the commission should not vote on anything that does not affect Washington County. “I think it should be tabled,” he said.
Flynn pointed out the General Assembly will be voting on the house and senate bills within the next couple of weeks so tabling the discussion was not a good idea.
Director of Schools Ron Dykes told the commission that the Board of Education passed a resolution in 2011 opposing school vouchers.
“I (also) oppose vouchers that support private schools with public dollars,” Dykes said.
“(Private schools) are not held to the same accountability, and this bill will pull $16 million in the first year from public education.”
Dykes said the legislation is designed to serve counties in West Tennessee that have other funding sources.
The motion failed in a 12-to-12 tie.