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Tennessee lawmakers narrowly send voucher bill to Gov. Lee

By JONATHAN MATTISE and KIMBERLEE KRUESIMay 2, 2019
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Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, listens to debate on school voucher legislation Wednesday, May 1, 2019, in Nashville, Tenn. The GOP-supermajority House and Senate passed a negotiated version of the bill that would increase the amount of public dollars that can pay for private tuition and other expenses. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
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Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, listens to debate on school voucher legislation Wednesday, May 1, 2019, in Nashville, Tenn. The GOP-supermajority House and Senate passed a negotiated version of the bill that would increase the amount of public dollars that can pay for private tuition and other expenses. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee lawmakers on Wednesday voted to ship Republican Gov. Bill Lee a negotiated version of his proposal to divert more tax money to private education, which will give participating families debit cards worth up to $7,300 in state education money each year. The bill narrowly emerged from fights over cost estimates and provisions that could exclude families in the U.S. illegally.

Ten lawmakers who met to sort out a negotiated version of the ever-changing bill only got a summary, but weren’t allowed to pause to read the 25-page version before voting to advance it, mostly along party lines, despite a Democrat’s request to do so.

Shortly thereafter, the full House approved it with a 53-46 vote. Senate GOP leaders then caught wind of a new estimated fiscal cost of more than $335 million over the next five years, and action briefly grinded to a halt.

Senate Republican bill proponents said the number was miscalculated and scrambled to order a different estimate. By their counting, the new fiscal impact figure was lower, although lawmakers continued to contest each other’s interpretations.

The Senate then voted 19-14 to send Lee the bill, despite frustration and confusion at the numbers by Democrats and several Republicans.

“Fuzzy math like this is how majorities become minorities,” said Sen. Steve Dickerson of Nashville, one of nine Republican “no” votes in the GOP-led Senate.

The Lee administration overcame a bumpy legislative path to score the freshman governor’s most prominent policy win yet with the voucher-like proposal, which has drawn supportive tweets from President Donald Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. Lee tweeted that he looks forward to signing the bill, saying it “provides more choices for more students and families.”

According to the bill — which was distributed after the morning meeting — the program’s main framework remain the same: families in certain schools districts could receive up to $7,300 in state funds each year to spend on private tuition and other approved expenses, such as transportation or curriculum costs. The money would be deposited in a family ESA, to be withdrawn using a debit card. It would be up to the education department to do audits to make sure the money goes to qualified expenses.

However, the latest version only allows the program to take place in Shelby and Davidson counties, caps the number of students who can take advantage of it to 15,000 over five years and excludes homeschool students. Previous iterations had included more areas and more students, including families who homeschool. It had also had tougher testing requirements. The latest version only requires participating students to complete state standardized testing in math and English language arts, but not science and social studies.

Despite the national attention, it’s been an uphill battle to secure enough support inside the GOP-controlled Statehouse all session.

That’s because many lawmakers, particularly in rural areas, feared that participating local public schools would receive fewer public dollars if involved in the voucher program.

Currently, schools get a certain amount of funding based on student enrollment. The concern had been that under the education savings account program, students who leave public school districts would take that funding with them. The compromise unveiled Wednesday allows participating public schools to continue to be fully reimbursed for losing students. Lawmakers say they will budget $25 million a year to fund the program starting in 2021. Supporters said Wednesday that they don’t expect 15,000 students to participate, and any leftover funds will be funneled to a separate account to fund grants for certain non-participating schools.

Families interested in participating must provide federal income tax returns or provide proof they can qualify for federal assistance. And despite some wording changes, the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee and the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition said the bill would exclude families who are in the U.S. illegally from getting their children vouchers, which has raised legal concerns.

“I would rather educate these children, get them a job and let them pay taxes,” said Republican Sen. Todd Gardenhire of Chattanooga, who voted “no.”

Critics of the program, which include education advocates and Democratic lawmakers, have argued ESAs will not help improve the state’s failing schools. Others have raised concerns that by facilitating the departure of more students, the bill could encourage more wealthier white families to flee troubled school districts as well.

“We’re about to move the clock back. We will see worse segregation in the coming years than you have seen in your lifetime. Why? Because it will be state-funded,” said Democratic Rep. G.A. Hardaway, of Memphis.

Nationally, five states allow some sort of education savings accounts: Arizona, Florida, Mississippi, Tennessee and Nevada. Nevada’s Supreme Court struck down its state law.

In Tennessee, the existing program is fairly limited. Parents of students with certain disabilities can withdraw their children from public school and then receive up to $6,000 to pay for private educational services.

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