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Education savings account plan sparks concerns in Tennessee

March 5, 2019

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Democratic lawmakers are criticizing Gov. Bill Lee’s proposal to devote $25 million toward allowing parents to create savings accounts to pay for their children’s education.

Lee announced the plan Monday during his first State of the State address. Legislation that would shine more light on the details of the proposal isn’t expected to be released until later this week, but the plan is expected to allow parents of students in certain low-income districts to receive $7,300 from a government-authorized account to pay for approved expenses.

“We want to target this program at those districts that have the most number of failing schools,” Lee told reporters on Tuesday. “I mean, when we target the greatest number of students in failing districts we’re going to achieve the results that we want most.”

Enrollment would be limited to 5,000 students in its initial year, but the cap would increase by 2,500 students if the enrollment maximum is met.

However, the proposal is already meeting resistance from Democratic lawmakers and teacher unions wary of a possible voucher program gaining traction in Tennessee.

Senate Democratic Caucus Chairwoman Raumesh Akbari described the proposal as a voucher program, adding that such ideas have not worked to increase student achievement in other states.

“Tennessee cannot afford to move backwards in education achievement,” she said in a statement.

Meanwhile, Senate Minority Leader Jeff Yarbro called the idea “vouchers on a gift card” that could be prone to fraud.

“It’s disappointing that the governor’s number one policy proposal is a divisive attempt to divert public school dollars into a private school voucher scheme,” Yarbro said.

Lee downplayed those concerns on Tuesday by promising the program will include strong accountability measures.

“The use of the dollars will be determined by the Department of Education to ensure that those dollars are spent only on educational resources,” said the new Republican governor. “And the schools themselves will be held accountable because every student that utilizes funds through this education savings account will be required to take an accountability test that other students across the state have to take as well.”

Currently, five states allow some sort of education savings accounts: Arizona, Florida, Mississippi, Tennessee and Nevada. The Nevada Supreme Court struck down its state’s law after ruling that the funding mechanism was unconstitutional.

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.

During the 2018-2019 school year, 96 students were enrolled in the program with the majority of them attending private school and the remaining being homeschooled.