Voucher bill has momentum in Tennessee, but faces many more votes to become law

Gov. Bill Lee’s education voucher proposal has momentum after passing in two legislative committees, but to become law the controversial bill still faces numerous votes that will get progressively harder.

So far, the bill to create education savings accounts, a form of vouchers, has advanced only in Tennessee’s House of Representatives, the chamber where a voucher bill has never before cleared all the hurdles necessary to become law.

It must clear three more hurdles to reach the House floor, where previous voucher legislation has never found enough support to merit a vote.

The proposal — which would give taxpayer money to some parents to pay for private school tuition or other private education services — must progress through the Senate, too, where it could debut in committee as soon as next week.

In all, the measure would have to move through three Senate committees before reaching the floor for a vote. But since that chamber has historically been a friendlier track for voucher legislation, the 99-member House is viewed as the tougher battleground for the Republican governor’s plan. Still, with Republicans solidly in control of the legislature, the bill’s backers are optimistic this time around.

Passage in two House committees during the past two weeks was a good start — or a bad one, depending on whether you favor or oppose vouchers.

For Dale Lynch, who spoke against the bill in behalf of Tennessee superintendents, its advancement on Wednesday in the House Education Committee was significant, but not the final word.

“This was a major hurdle that the proponents of this legislation feel very good about,” Lynch said after the vote. “But every step along the way gets more difficult.”

As it stands now, the proposal would start with up to 5,000 students in five cities in 2021 and could grow to 15,000 participants by its fifth year. Each family that’s approved would get an average of $7,300 in public funds annually.

Groups that represent public school teachers, superintendents, and school boards all oppose that approach. They would rather see more state money invested in public schools than withdrawn from them (although Lee has vowed to offset any losses during the first three years).

The new governor — who attended public schools in Williamson County and placed his children in a mix of public, private, and home schools — campaigned on giving parents more education choices for their kids. He says education savings accounts would be a good start.

Next steps

On Monday, the bill heads to the House Government Operations Committee. That panel won’t vote it up or down, but instead make a recommendation based on provisions for regulating the program.

Because the vouchers are projected to cost as much as $125 million by 2024, the bill will head next to the House finance subcommittee, where lobbyists on both sides of the issue are already at work. If approved there, it would go on to the full finance committee, which is also one of the legislature’s most powerful because it holds the purse-strings on legislation. Rep. Susan Lynn, a Republican from Mount Juliet, is the chair. From there, it would go to the House floor for every representative to vote on.

In the Senate, the education committee is slated to consider the legislation on April 3.

“As we often do, we partner with the House to decide who goes first and, on that particular bill, … we asked the House to go first,” explained Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson, who is co-sponsoring the governor’s legislation.

The Senate Education Committee is chaired by Sen. Dolores Gresham, who is also shepherding the bill through that chamber.

Sen. Dolores Gresham chairs the Senate Education Committee. (Chalkbeat/Marta W. Aldrich)

“She’s a tireless advocate on this particular issue and she is tremendously knowledgeable about this,” Johnson said.

If approved in the education committee, the bill would go next to the Senate’s government operations panel before heading to the finance committee. If it clears all of those hurdles, the legislation would be scheduled for a vote in the full Senate.

In the House, the bill is sponsored by House Majority Leader William Lamberth of Cottontown and is being shepherded by Rep. Bill Dunn of Knoxville.

You can follow the bill’s progression here.