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School vouchers will soon be back in front of TN lawmakers

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JOHNSON CITY, TN - School vouchers will be back on the table before the Tennessee legislature this year. The plan is to take some state education dollars and put them towards tuition for some students in private schools. For that reason, it's unpopular with public school supporters.

Lawmakers are reviving the bill that failed last year. Many school district leaders see this as mismanagement of money that should be spent improving public schools. But proponents of vouchers say students should have a choice.

At Ashley Academy, private school in Johnson City, headmaster Ramona Harr said the school focuses on honing leadership skills.

"That has to be something that is a value for a child and for parents," Harr said, "and a part of future plans that they have for that child."

Harr supports the voucher program. She believes each student should have a chance to find the environment that serves them best.

"I think there is some value at least for conversation to talk about choice and where my child will attend school," Harr said.

The proposed voucher program would cap at 5,000 low-income Tennessee students. They would come from public schools that score in the state's bottom 5-percent.

State funds allocated for each student would go toward his or her private school tuition rather than to public schools.

But public school district leaders said they don't want to lose funding to a school like this one.

"What the state needs to do if there are failing schools is put dollars towards those schools to help schools succeed," said Kathy Hall, vice chair of the Johnson City Board of Education.

She expects the Johnson City BOE may consider another resolution urging lawmakers to reject vouchers.

"Anytime we skim students out of a failing school it hurts the students more," Hall said.

State senator Jon Lundberg said he will co-sponsor the bill again this year. Not only does he want to give those students a choice, he said it will give failing schools incentive to improve.

"A lot of those schools that are not doing well, frankly, they're not under pressure to change," Lundberg said, "they're frankly stagnant and have been for a long time."

According to Lundberg, the schools with low test scores are in other parts of Tennessee, not East Tennessee. That's part of the reason that local voucher opponents said they're against state education dollars going to something other than public schools.

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