TN Senate plan would allow public dollars for private, church sc - | Chattanooga News, Weather & Sports

TN Senate plan would allow public dollars for private, church schools

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CHATTANOOGA (WRCB) - Pastor Fred Andrews wishes he could help every family who wants to put children in Calvary Christian School.

"Every year, I have families who ask, but say we really can't pay anything," he says.

Calvary Christian's tuition is among the lowest of church-based or private schools in Chattanooga, less than $3,500 per year for most grade levels.

Could its 120-student enrollment, if the Tennessee House goes along with a plan the Senate's dubbed 'equal opportunity scholarships'?

"There is no question," Pastor Andrews says.

The plan would allow parents whose children attend 'low performance schools' in Hamilton (Chattanooga), Knox (Knoxville), Davidson (Nashville) or Shelby (Memphis) counties to take half of the state 'per pupil' spending dollars meant for those children, to use as a voucher toward tuition at a church-based or private school.

Families would qualify, if their incomes qualified for free-or reduced-price lunches. A two-parent family with six children could earn as much as $69,616 a year. A family of four: $41,238. A single parent could earn no more than $27,214 yearly.

"How many might take advantage of it," asks Sen. Bo Watson (R-Hixson). "I don't know."

The Tennessee Department of Education estimates that 60 percent of Hamilton County's students could qualify for scholarships worth about $4,500 a year.

"Only half of that (per-pupil spending) follows the child," Sen. Watson says. "The rest stays with the District, so only half of that would go to the other school."

Pastor Andrews says Calvary Christian might welcome public dollars, but he's wary.

"If Tennessee were to establish certain criteria to get them, what if the criteria they're asking us to meet with the basic philosophy and commitments of the school," he asks.

Calvary Christian would refuse, he says, were it to be required to teach evolution as scientific fact, rather than theory; or if teachers no longer could incorporate Bible lessons in their instruction.

"A lot of that is going to lie in the wording of the rules and regulations," Sen. Watson says.

The Senate bill forbids discrimination in admissions based on a student's race, religion, age or gender. Schools must offer proof of financial viability; that the scholarship would cover the student's costs.

Beyond that isn't clear.

"We already have to meet the state's requirements in that in order for a student to earn a diploma, certain credits have to be earned," Pastor Andrews says.

Senator Watson says his vote is based on principle rather than its specifics.

"We need to look for ways to give parents more choice in how they choose to educate their children," he says.

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