The bill is a top priority for Republican Governor Bill Haslam, but several anti-religion lawmakers in the state senate, led by Sen. Bill Ketron who sponsored several anti-Islam bills in the last few years, are hoping to strip away the ability for any school that caters to Muslim children and their families to receive public dollars:
“This is an issue we must address,” state Sen. Jim Tracy (R-Shelbyville) said. “I don’t know whether we can simply amend the bill in such a way that will fix the issue at this point.”
State Sen. Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro) and Tracy each expressed their concerns Friday over Senate Bill 0196, commonly called the “School Voucher Bill” and sponsored by fellow Sen. Mark Norris (R-Collierville), which would give parents of children attending failing public schools a voucher with which to enroll in a private school.
Ketron has cultivated a reputation as the state’s chief Islamophobe, proposing a bill in 2011 that could have introduced punishments of up to 15 years in jail for any Muslim who observed the holy month of Ramadan or prayed five times a day towards Mecca, a religious requirement for observant Muslims.
Tennessee is not the first state to try and carve out exemptions to education funding that target only Muslims. Last year, Louisiana Republicans threatened to hold up an education bill backed by Governor Bobby Jindal (R) for similar reasons: a single private Islamic school had applied for a handful of vouchers that Republicans intended to make available only to nondenominational and Judeo-Christian schools. That bill ultimately passed and was signed into law but only after the school — the Islamic School of Greater New Orleans — withdrew its application for vouchers.
Late Wednesday afternoon, Tennessee State Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R) announced that he was pulling Gov. Haslam’s vouchers bill from the floor. Several Republicans in the senate had been pushing Haslam to support an expansion of the vouchers program to include eligibility for thousands more students in the state, and not just those from low-income school districts. Outside groups had poured thousands of dollars into ads supporting the expansion, but Haslam remained opposed to raising the $43,000 income cutoff for a family of four to $75,000. “In other words, it was more about … politics than education,” Norris told the Associated Press.