Tennessee legislature passes emergency budget as attempt to yank school vouchers fails

Voucher opponents in Tennessee’s legislature tried Thursday night to use Gov. Bill Lee’s emergency budget overhaul to block his controversial education savings account program from launching next school year.

It didn’t work — and almost backfired — as lawmakers sought to recess quickly due to the spread of the new coronavirus.

With the Republican governor watching from upper-tier seating, the House of Representatives voted 69-21 to table an attempt by Rep. Harold Love to shift funding from the voucher program to rural clinics and other health care facilities.

“If we have this health care crisis going on right now, why wouldn’t we take everything we can” and put it toward health care, the Nashville Democrat asked of $41 million listed in the budget for “non-public education.”

Rep. Matthew Hill, a Jonesborough Republican who worked to pass the voucher law, countered that most of the $41 million will reimburse public school districts in Memphis and Nashville that are expected to lose students and per-pupil funding to private schools through Lee’s education savings account program. 

Hill later pushed — and then withdrew — a measure to strip the districts of that money and put it instead toward rural health care.

The voucher skirmish shattered any bipartisan spirit in the GOP-controlled House amidst a public health emergency. The nearly two-hour debate included a handful of other failed Democrat-sponsored budget amendments.

The House eventually approved the $39 billion spending plan, which slashes hundreds of millions of new dollars that Lee had earmarked for K-12 education only seven weeks earlier. The Senate approved the budget later Thursday evening, sending the plan to the governor’s desk for his signature.

The budget lists $41 million for the voucher program, which will let eligible families in Tennessee’s two largest cities use taxpayer money on private school tuition, tutoring, and other approved education-related expenses. 

Of that amount, about $3 million would cover administering the program, with the remainder going into a school improvement fund for local districts to offset expected funding losses. Even more state dollars will be diverted from public to private schools when up to 5,000 approved families receive annual vouchers of $7,000, including a 6% program administration fee.

Lee’s budget overhaul cuts a proposed new $250 million trust fund for student mental health, $68 million to overhaul literacy, $25 million to support low-performing schools in the state-run Achievement School District, and $24 million to help charter schools with building costs.

The reductions are in response to the likelihood of an economic recession as business slows and, in many sectors, grinds to a halt due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“These are hard choices, but hard times require hard choices,” the governor said during an afternoon press conference.

The budget still sets aside $58.7 million more for teacher pay, half of what Lee proposed last month and equating to a 2% increase from the state.

Much of the savings from Lee’s education reductions would go instead into a new $150 million fund to cover health and safety issues related to the pandemic, plus $350 million for the state’s “rainy day” fund for anticipated economic challenges.

By law, the voucher program is not required to begin until the fall of 2021, but Lee ordered its launch a year early. Two lawsuits are pending challenging the law’s constitutionality.

During his press conference, the governor did not specifically mention vouchers but alluded to it when talking about the latest budget choices.

“We are providing teacher pay raises through this budget, and we are continuing to fund any educational initiative that was passed and had a funding plan in previous legislation,” Lee said.

Love offered his proposal with minimal chance of wounding the voucher law, which passed by one vote in the House last spring. A handful of lawmakers siding with voucher opponents were absent Thursday as they left the Capitol early due to the threat of the new coronavirus.