Clemmons Questions Monetary Impact of Vouchers

Andrea Zelinski, Nashville Post Politics

April 1, 2015 - “You’ll learn,” Majority Leader Gerald McCormick said wide-eyed as he leaned across his seat toward two Democrats hell-bent on making a school voucher bill as difficult to pass as possible. “You’ll learn.”

Freshman Rep. John Ray Clemmons had decided to make his stand against vouchers in the Government Operations Committee. Sensing a cold wind blowing from Republicans who cut short debate on the guns-in-parks bill on the House floor Monday night, he said now was his chance to put on the record his opposition to vouchers.

“I’m concerned about what rules are going to be put in place to replace the dollars that are being stolen from our public school systems by this bill,” Clemmons said

McCormick and the committee then erupted with objections and immediately called discussion on the bill to a close, concluding more than an hour-long debate. The bill passed easily and quickly on a voice vote, followed by McCormick repeating his warning to Clemmons and quietly dressing down Rep. Mike Stewart before leaving the committee room, steaming.

“Won’t let them get away with it,” McCormick said on his way through the hallway.

But to Democrats, who have been unable to significantly affect much legislation, they came out with what some would consider a win. Before needling the sponsor on the merits of a program that gives low-income students a ticket to private and parochial schools on the government’s tab, members voted to delay the launch of school voucher program until Jan. 1, 2016. The amendment came from Chairman Jeremy Faison, who worried the state doesn’t have enough time to promulgate rules for a voucher program by the fall 2015 school year.

After years of failed attempts at establishing a school voucher program — which would allow low-income students in five counties to attend participating private schools on taxpayer-funded scholarships — this session appears the most favorable to passage. Republicans have increased their majority in the House and major advocates for vouchers have poured in the ballpark of $900,000 into legislative campaigns last year.

Four legislators on the 10-member Government Operations Committee that approved vouchers on a voice vote Tuesday collectively received more than $31,000 in contributions and independent expenditures from key pro-voucher groups StudentsFirst and the Tennessee Federation for Children, according to a Post review of campaign finance records. They include Rep. John Ragan with $17,065; GOP Caucus Leader Glen Casada with $7,992; McCormick with $5,000 between his campaign and political action committee; and Rep. Dan Howell with $1,000.

The bill now moves to the House Finance, Ways and Means Committee, where six of 23 members have collectively accepted $24,500 worth of campaign contributions — and another bared the brunt of $37,000 in spending against him. Beneficiaries include Republicans, namely Finance Committee Chairman Charles Sargent with $6,000; Rep. Patsy Hazlewood with $6,000; Finance Subcommittee Chairman Mike Harrison with $4,000; Rep. Ryan Haynes with $2,000; and Rep. Mike Carter with $1,500. Democratic Rep. Bo Mitchell, saw the pro-voucher groups spend $37,065 spent against him last year.

“I don’t know what happened, but tempers blew up, didn’t it,” said Republican Caucus Chairman Glen Casada.