Voucher bill clears first hurdle in Tennessee’s legislature

Legislation that would create a new type of voucher program in Tennessee advanced Tuesday in the first skirmish of what likely will be one of the biggest battles in this year’s General Assembly.

Lawmakers on a House education panel voted 7-2 for a bill that would allow families in school districts with low-performing schools to receive education savings accounts loaded with taxpayer money to help them pay for private education services. The program would start in the fall of 2021 with up to 5,000 students, beginning in six districts in Memphis, Nashville, Knoxville, Chattanooga, and Jackson.

Rep. Bill Dunn, who is carrying the proposal on behalf of Republican Gov. Bill Lee, said the approach acknowledges that one size doesn’t fit all when it comes to learning. He said families ultimately should have the power to decide what’s best for their children, whether it’s going to a public, private, parochial, or home school.

The idea of “letting a family decide how to get the best education is nothing new. We do it all the time in higher education,” the Knoxville Republican said of the state’s merit-based HOPE scholarships and federal Pell grants for students with financial need.

The vote means the Lee administration cleared its first hurdle for one of the new governor’s signature initiatives aimed at giving more education options to families. The bill now moves to the full House Education Committee.

Numerous voucher bills have gotten stuck in that committee in previous years, but it could fare better this year due to a large turnover in House membership from the 2018 elections and a new 23-member committee hand-picked by House Speaker Glen Casada, who has long supported vouchers.

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Tuesday’s vote in the House subcommittee on curriculum, testing, and innovation came less than a week after Lee’s staff released details of the governor’s proposal.

While Lee has proffered his plan as a way to help mostly low-income students in failing schools, the legislation, as written, could provide an average of $7,300 annually to a family of three who makes up to about $77,000, or a family of four whose annual income is up to almost $93,000. The money could go toward private or parochial school, private tutoring, online courses, or other education services. And unlike previous voucher proposals in Tennessee, Lee’s plan would not require participating private schools to cap tuition costs at the amount provided by the state.

“Who will be able to use these ESAs?” asked Jim Wrye, a lobbyist for the Tennessee Education Association, the state’s largest teacher organization. “In Arizona, 75 percent of all ESAs are used by what was deemed affluent families and only 4 percent were used by low-income families and minority low-income families.”

Subcommittee members focused their questions primarily on student eligibility, funding, and testing during the hour-plus meeting in a packed committee room at the state Capitol.

Rep. Charlie Baum, a Murfreesboro Republican, questioned why students accepting education savings accounts would only be required to take state tests in math and English language arts — and not social studies, science, and the ACT college entrance exam, too.

“I would think that we would want the recipients to go through the full battery of assessments that students in public schools receive,” he said of the need to “compare apples to apples” in measuring the program’s success.

Dunn said such concerns could be refined as the bill moves through the legislative process.

Baum also noted that the proposal — while billed as a way to help students who are in failing schools — could give education savings accounts to students in top-performing schools if they are part of districts with three or more schools in the state’s bottom 10 percent.

“Would there be any advantage to somehow ensuring that students who take the ESAs are literally from a priority school or school [on the cusp list] in the bottom 10 percent?” he asked Brent Easley, the governor’s legislative director.

“The idea behind this is that we’re calling out these districts that have concentrations of schools that are on the cusp list,” Easley responded, suggesting that increased competition will lead to better public schools.

Rep. Tom Leatherwood, whose Memphis-area district includes Arlington Community Schools, said he believes the governor’s intentions are good but that he has serious concerns about the plan’s funding and accountability provisions, especially as a parent who home-schooled his own children for a portion of their education.

“I am concerned that having these accounts out there could draw some people who aren’t as dedicated or concerned about home schooling as some have been in the past. … It just takes one or two bad cases to tarnish an entity or an institution,” he said, adding that the program could “do harm to home-schoolers in the long-run.”

Rep. Bill Dunn prepares to present the governor’s education savings account bill to the House education subcommittee that he serves on.

Leatherwood went on to talk about the need for testing accountability.

“It’s very rare that the government gives money without strings being attached. If we’re going to try to compare these students apples to apples, why wouldn’t we require further testing?” said the Arlington Republican, who joined Nashville Democrat Vincent Dixie to vote against the bill.

Rep. John DeBerry, a Memphis Democrat who voted for the bill, complained that the proposal was “low on details,” a point echoed by Rep. Mark White, who chairs the House Education Committee.

“Let’s make sure this thing is written right,” White said of the need to tighten the legislation.

This story has been updated. Below, you can read the amendment, approved on Tuesday, that makes the bill.