Gov. Bill Lee got an earful Tuesday during a closed-door meeting at the state Capitol with school leaders from the five cities that would be affected by his proposal to let some families use taxpayer money to pay for private education services.
“If this voucher bill passes, the private schools will pick the best of the best, and we will become a district of the academically and behaviorally challenged,” said Stephanie Love, a board member with Shelby County Schools in Memphis, recounting her message to the governor as she left the meeting.
In all, more than 20 board members and four superintendents from Memphis, Nashville, Knoxville, Chattanooga, and Jackson met with the governor, according to Tammy Grissom, executive director of the Tennessee School Board Association, which organized the gathering.
“Each district had their own talking points, and the governor listened,” Grissom said. “We were glad to have an opportunity to be heard.”
The hour-long roundtable discussion came amid a flurry of activity in Nashville as the new governor’s signature education initiative hit a roadblock in the Senate and Lee’s lieutenants scrambled to shore up support. Another revised proposal is expected to emerge Wednesday in the House Finance Committee, the last major hurdle before heading to a full vote in that chamber.
Meanwhile, the administration revised its proposed budget to move the $25 million previously allocated for the controversial program to go instead to fighting hepatitis C in state prisons. Lee’s finance commissioner, Stuart McWhorter, said the funding shift is not a sign of trouble for the governor’s education plan.
“As we’ve gotten into the details of how the program will work and the timing of when those dollars are needed, it became evident that we didn’t need it for fiscal year 2020,” McWhorter told reporters.
The jockeying came as the Republican-dominated General Assembly looks to address the new Republican governor’s legislative agenda before adjourning in early May. At the top of list is Lee’s initiative to offer some families education savings accounts, a newer type of voucher.
Lee has said he’s trying to help students from low-income families who are trapped inside of failing schools even though, as the plan is written, middle-income families would be more likely to participate. For a district to be eligible, it must have at least three schools that are in the state’s bottom 10 percent academically. In its first year, the program would be capped at 5,000 students, with each of their families receiving a voucher with an average of $7,300 to pay for private school tuition, tutoring, online classes, and other educational services.
At Tuesday’s closed-door meeting, superintendents and elected school leaders questioned why students receiving education savings accounts would be required to take half as many annual assessments as their counterparts in public schools.
“How do you tell me as a parent that a private school will better educate my child when we know they’re not held to the same standards?” said Love, recounting one question she asked Lee.
“He could not answer that,” she said.
Love, who has been an outspoken voice against previous failed voucher bills, also spoke passionately against any new program that would siphon off students and money from public schools that she says are already underfunded, especially in her district where about half the student population lives below the poverty line. She said she doubted whether private schools could do any better for the student population now served by her Shelby County district.
“We need those funds to provide resources for our children,” Love said. “This ESA bill has nothing to do with choice because a private school chooses the children they want to teach. They’re not going to let in a child who has a [tracheal tube] or is wearing a diaper or has to have a diabetic shot because they cannot provide services for those children.”
At least 44 school boards in Tennessee 147 districts are on the record opposing the governor’s plan. Those include include Shelby County Schools, Tennessee’s largest system.
“We hope the governor reconsiders,” said Joris Ray, Shelby County Schools’ interim superintendent, who attended the meeting. “I think the governor’s heart is in the right place. But on this particular issue, I think he needs to listen and have an open heart.”
Ray said that, based on calculations from his staff, his district would lose $189 million in funding over five years if the program launches. And he noted that Memphians already have numerous education choices that include dozens of district-run optional schools and more than 80 charter schools overseen by Shelby County Schools or the state.
“If the heart of this bill is school choice, we have more choices in Shelby County than anywhere in the state,” he said. “This will have a direct impact on students in poverty — and not in a good way.”
Several aides to the governor declined to comment about the governor’s roundtable discussion with local school leaders.
The administration estimates the new program could cost the state $125 million by 2024 but, at this point, the mechanics of the proposal are changing daily.
The governor’s revised budget proposal, presented to the Senate Finance Committee on Tuesday, removed the $25 million that previously was to be set aside next year to help districts offset funding losses if the program launches in 2021. Last month, Lee pledged to give those districts $75 million over three years in anticipation that some students would exit public schools to accept education savings accounts.
A spokeswoman for the governor characterized the one-time shift of money to state prisons as “a matter of timing,” since the funds can’t be used for education savings accounts until that program is up and running.
“We are doing two things: 1) ensuring that this money remains intact for future ESA use in the budget and 2) using the one-time expenditure to address an urgent need for Hep C treatments,” said Laine Arnold, the governor’s press secretary.
However, a new amendment circulating on Capitol Hill on Tuesday evening would decrease that reimbursement for the affected school districts.
Also in the Senate Finance Committee, the voucher bill was kicked to next week after member Todd Gardenhire said he planned to vote against the governor’s proposal. The Republican senator from Chattanooga, who has sponsored several voucher bills previously, had been expected to tilt a tight committee vote in the governor’s favor.
Gardenhire’s primary objection, he told the Times Free Press, is a provision that aims to keep undocumented immigrant students out of the proposed program, which also would make the state vulnerable to a legal challenge.
You can follow the bill’s progression here.