KNOXVILLE (WATE) – School vouchers are back in the controversial spotlight because of a bill that could bring the program to Tennessee. House Bill 1049 would let kids in the worst-performing schools move to private schools, using public money to pay for their tuition through a scholarship program called “Tennessee Choice & Opportunity Act”. The bill cleared an early vote last week and its author, State Representative Bill Dunn, said it could hit the House floor next week.

The controversy that surrounds school vouchers is very political and very divisive, often coming down to priorities. Those in favor of it want parents to be able to give their child a better education; those against it say doing so would make things worse for school districts as a whole.

“It is essentially gutting our public school system,” said Knox County Education Association President Lauren Hopson.

Hopson held a press conference Monday afternoon urging people to tell their state representatives to vote “no” on the school vouchers bill. Hopson believes taking tax dollars from public schools to pay private school tuition is not the answer to poor school performance.Previous story: School voucher proposal clears key Tennessee House panel

“Private schools are supposed to be run on private funds,” Hopson said. “Public schools should be run on public funds and this is kind of going against all of that.”

Rep. Dunn said the students who would get the scholarship are at the state’s poorest performing schools, the bottom five percent also called “priority schools”. Rep. Dunn said it’s not fair to students at those schools to have to wait for their schools to get better.

“In some of them, less than 50 percent of the kids graduate. In some of them only seven percent of the kids are proficient,” said Dunn. “In some of these schools, the average ACT test score is 14.”

Another argument against school vouchers is the lack of accountability for private schools because they are not funded publicly and are not held to the same standards as public schools.

“It takes funds from public schools that they can’t recoup,” said Hopson. “If the answer to improving education is to help fully fund a lot of the initiatives that are out there, then taking money is not the way to help that, especially if you have schools that are not being successful.”

But Rep. Dunn said his bill will require the private schools participating in the program to give the scholarship students state standardized tests or nationally recognized norm-referenced tests, approved by the state board. Additionally, a private school could be pulled from the voucher system if students don’t achieve standards set by the state.

“Obviously these kids are not getting what they need,” said Rep. Dunn. “They’re headed to failure and if we don’t intervene it’s going to turn out bad for them.”

If the bill passes, 5,000 Tennessee students would get a scholarship for the 2015-2016 school year. That number would increase each school year until 2018 when a maximum of 20,000 students could get the scholarship each year.

There are four schools in East Tennessee that have students who would qualify for the voucher program: Green Magnet Academy, Lonsdale Elementary School, Sarah Moore Green Academy, and Vine Middle School.