Tennessee universal school voucher bill clears two more legislative hurdles after contentious debate

A man wearing a business suit leans over a desk to speak with a woman.
Rep. Scott Cepicky, a Republican from Culleoka, is carrying Gov. Bill Lee's private school voucher bill in the Tennessee House of Representatives on behalf of Majority Leader William Lamberth. The bill advanced Wednesday out of a House education committee. (Larry McCormack for Chalkbeat)

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Gov. Bill Lee’s proposal to create a statewide school voucher program easily cleared its first Senate hurdle Wednesday, but took a split vote and five-plus hours of often contentious debate to pass out of a House committee.

The legislation — the most ambitious and controversial education plan of Lee’s five-plus years in office — passed 7-1 out of the Senate Education Committee, with the panel’s lone Democrat casting the dissenting vote.

In the House Education Administration Committee, the measure advanced 12-7, including four Republicans voting against it in the GOP-controlled legislature. Passage came even as Maryville City Schools Director Mike Winstead, a 2018 finalist for National Superintendent of the Year, called vouchers “a bitter pill, maybe some would say a poison pill” that he believes will destabilize K-12 education across Tennessee in the long run.

“You can coat that with a lot of good things and make it go down a little easier,” Winstead testified before the panel. “But in the end, we’re being asked to ingest a poison pill.”

Meanwhile, supporters pounded on the theme of parental choice.

“This is about parents finding the best learning environment for their students,” said Education Commissioner Lizzette Reynolds.

Lee’s Education Freedom Scholarship Act must clear more committees in each chamber before it can be voted on by the full House and Senate. The House bill now heads to that chamber’s government operations committee, while the Senate bill will be heard next by its finance panel.

Both proposals would start a new voucher program this fall with up to 20,000 students who could use taxpayer funding to attend private schools. Lee wants the program opened up eventually for any K-12 student, regardless of their family income.

The pieces of legislation remain vastly different, however, both in cost and scope.

The Senate bill, starting this year at $95 million and jumping to $333 million in the program’s second year, requires voucher recipients to take some type of tests that can be used to compare and rank students, but not the same rigorous standards-based tests that public school students have to take under the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program, known as TCAP. The legislation also would allow public school students to enroll in any district, even if they’re not zoned for it, provided there’s enough space and teaching staff.

The House version, starting at $398 million and growing to $425 million in the program’s second year, has no testing requirement for voucher recipients. It includes a long list of enticements aimed at public school supporters, including reducing testing time for students, increasing the state’s contribution toward health insurance costs for teachers, requiring fewer evaluations for high-performing teachers, and giving districts an extra $75 per student — or about $73 million in all in the first year — to help with building costs.

Rep. Chris Hurt, a Halls Republican who voted against the bill, expressed concern that the public school measures could get “stripped out” of the final legislation if Senate and House negotiators head to a conference committee to work out their differences.

And Rep. Charlie Baum, a Murfreesboro Republican who sits on the House Finance Committee, worried about the proposal’s high cost. He noted that Tennessee’s government faces a $400 million shortfall in its current budget.

Rep. Charlie Baum, a Murfreesboro Republican, flagged the high cost of the House voucher bill during a committee meeting but eventually voted for the measure. (Larry McCormack for Chalkbeat)

“I understand that we’re adding the additional sections to make the bill more enticing, maybe to sweeten the pot,” said Baum, who later voted for the measure. “But it seems like in order to pass a $140 million freedom accounts [voucher] bill, we’re spending an additional $350 million” for public schools.

Baum asked sponsors to consider separate bills to vote on the private school voucher and public school provisions based on their costs and merits. But Rep. Scott Cepicky, a Maury County Republican who is carrying the bill for House Majority Leader William Lamberth, declined.

The voucher proposal, Cepicky said, was the right “vehicle” to address long-standing challenges for public educators.

Rep. Antonio Parkinson balked at that statement though. The Memphis Democrat said lawmakers have the power any time to create legislation to address matters related to public education.

“For some reason, we’ve chosen to create a lemon,” said Parkinson, seizing on the same automotive analogy. “And that vehicle now has all of these great options that are in it, but is tied to four flat tires.”

The House debate waded into the potential for voucher money going to undocumented students or to private schools teaching atheist, Satanic, or Muslim curriculum.

Questions also were raised about whether federally required services for students with special needs would lead to new federal regulations on private schools that accept vouchers. There was little discussion, however, about whether voucher recipients with special needs would receive adequate services from private schools.

Chairman Mark White, a Republican from Memphis, also received complaints from several people who weren’t allowed to testify.

While two people each spoke for and against vouchers, pro-voucher voices included Robby Starbuck, a video director and conservative political activist, and Walter Blanks Jr., a spokesperson for the American Federation for Children advocacy group. White declined to hear testimony from voucher opponents Eric Welch, an elected school board member from Williamson County, and Matt Steinhauer, a Franklin pastor and parent.

In the other chamber, Sen. Raumesh Akbari, a Democrat from Memphis, questioned why the Senate bill doesn’t require voucher schools to be held to the same accountability standards as public schools, including TCAP tests, Tennessee’s third grade retention law, and the state’s new A-F designations for schools.

“If the majority of students in that [private] school who are taking these public dollars are performing poorly, will the school face any action based on what’s written in this legislation, where they can no longer accept students who have these vouchers?” Akbari asked.

Senate Education Committee Chairman Jon Lundberg, who drafted the Senate’s version, responded no.

Marta Aldrich is a senior correspondent and covers the statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee. Contact her at maldrich@chalkbeat.org.

Bureau Chief Tonyaa Weathersbee contributed to this report.

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