Amended bill could add 13,000 students to Tennessee’s first foray into vouchers

A bill that originally had nothing to do with school vouchers now has the potential to reallocate tens of thousands of public dollars to private services for students with disabilities.

The proposal, which passed the House Education Administration and Planning Committee on Tuesday, asked only to change the deadline for a report on conflict resolution to the state education commissioner.

But Rep. Roger Kane amended his bill last week so it expands eligibility for a program allowing some students with special needs to use public school funding toward private schools or services. Under his proposal, 13,000 more students could use the school choice program, increasing the total number of eligible students to 33,000 students statewide.

The amendment adds students with “developmental delays” or multiple disabilities to the Individualized Education Act, which passed in 2015 and went into effect in January. The program is currently available to students with autism, deaf-blindness, hearing impairments, and other intellectual and physical disabilities.

Kane, a Knoxville Republican, said that expanding the program will allow more parents to be in “the driver’s seat” of their child’s education.

“What better program do you have than when a parent is totally engaged in the process, getting his child the treatment he needs?” he said.

The Tennessee General Assembly Fiscal Review Committee has not yet calculated the cost of the proposal, and there was little discussion about the potential price tag in Tuesday’s committee meeting.

But the Tennessee Department of Education predicts that participation would continue to be low, even with the expansion. For a combination of reasons, only 35 students have participated so far. Families who elect to participate must waive rights and protections granted under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which mandates that all students receive a “free and appropriate” public education, even if they are disabled.

It’s not the first attempt this year to expand the program. A Senate proposal to allow students currently attending private school to participate was derailed because of the potential cost to local school systems.

The bill now goes to the House Finance Committee. The Senate version is scheduled for a vote Wednesday in the Senate Education Committee, which is chaired by co-sponsor Dolores Gresham, a Republican from Somerville.