Tennessee Legislators Divided On Proposed Expansion Of Education Savings Accounts
Image Credit: Marco Verch / CC
The Tennessee Conservative [By Jason Vaughn] –
Legislation to spread the state’s Education Savings Account program to Hamilton County will be brought, according to two key House members’ confirmation. This move could launch expansion into two other counties as well.
After Senator Todd Gardenhire (R-Chattanooga-District 12) requested his help in passing the legislation, House Education Administration Committee Chairman Mark White (R-Memphis-District 83) told the Tennessee Lookout that he plans to sponsor the House version of the bill.
“… Being a voucher proponent, I said if you want it in Hamilton County, I wouldn’t mind carrying it,” White said. Prior to reading the language, he was unsure whether it could affect other counties.
Patsy Hazlewood (R-Signal Mountain-District 27), House Finance, Ways and Means Committeewoman also confirmed that she would co-sponsor the legislation, even though she had previously requested that Hamilton County be removed before the House narrowly passed a voucher bill in 2019.
The voting board was held open by then Speaker Glen Casada for nearly 45 minutes to work through a tiebreaker. Representative Jason Zachary (R-Knoxville-District 14) ultimately changed his vote in support of the bill after understanding that Knox County Schools would no longer be a voucher district.
The program, which was approved by the Tennessee Supreme Court despite being found unconstitutional in two lower courts, provides about $8,000 for qualifying students in Metro Nashville and Shelby County school districts to enroll in private schools. 528 applicants have been approved for those two districts; there are more than 1,000 applications.
Hazlewood explained that she wanted Hamilton County Schools removed from the voucher bill three years ago because the district had just started a plan with a special advisory board using additional funds to remove schools from the state’s failing list.
According to a text from Hazlewood, she felt the school district should be given the chance to improve those schools. Nearly four years later, with the number of failing schools increasing, she said, the local plan failed in either planning or executing the program or both.
“Now that the TISA formula is in place ensuring that the money follows the child, it only seems fair that Hamilton County students who are zoned for these failing schools should have a chance at a higher quality education as do those in Shelby and Davidson,” she said.
Hazlewood’s statement was in regard to the state’s new K-12 education funding formula, which set a base amount per child and other factors to impact spending.
Last year, voucher opponents argued that Gov. Bill Lee’s new funding formula was designed to strengthen the Education Savings Account program.
On Tuesday, the spokesman for Hamilton County Schools refused to say if they opposed or supported the bill, only claiming that it monitors all education-related bills and would have “ongoing conversations” with lawmakers.
Gardenhire said last week his legislation, Senate Bill 12, is designed for Hamilton County. It would expand the eligibility to include students zoned to a school district with at least five schools – not 10 as written for Metro Nashville and Shelby – in the bottom 10% of the state’s schools in 2017 and identified as priority schools (in the bottom 5%) in 2015, 2018 and 2021.
The Knox and Madison school districts could become voucher systems if the cumulative number of schools for those categories are taken into account. In 2019, those were two of three removed from the bill in order to pass it in the House and the Senate.
On Monday, White said he was unsure if the language would allow expansion to Knox and Madison counties, but noted he would let lawmakers who represent those two school districts make the decision on whether the students there should be eligible for vouchers.
Sen. Richard Briggs (R-Knoxville-District 7) and Rep. Gloria Johnson (D-Knoxville-District 90) both oppose vouchers in Knox County.
“We know that their goal is to broaden them to all counties and then also to include any socioeconomic group,” Johnson said.
Johnson contends that voucher students perform no better than their public school peers and said she plans to continue opposing the spread of the Education Savings Account program.
Briggs said this week he needs to look at the legislation’s details but questioned whether vouchers would apply to students in priority and failing schools or to other students in the district. The current law applies to students categorized as low-income, but they don’t have to attend one of the district’s struggling schools.
The Knox County legislative delegation seems to be split on the matter, according to Briggs, but says he found in his personal polling that Knox County does not favor vouchers.
Briggs is in support of charter schools, which are considered part of public school systems and are usually run by private, nonprofit groups.
“My concern has always been the schools that are left and the kids,” Briggs said, because they have to provide their own transportation. “You’ve taken enough money and it makes the bad schools worse.”
House Speaker Cameron Sexton (R-Crossville-District 25) who voted against the voucher bill at least twice in 2019, was non-committal when asked about expansion to Hamilton and potentially Knox and Madison counties. He made a statement saying, “Every House member can file up to 15 bills; ultimately, the committee process will determine whether any proposed legislation passes, fails, or is amended.”
Lt. Gov. Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge-District 5) seems to be more favorable toward the expansion of vouchers.
Spokesman Adam Kleinheider said McNally “has consistently supported school choice throughout the years and appreciates Sen. Gardenhire’s efforts in moving the conversation forward.”
Senator Ed Jackson (R-Jackson-District 25) would not commit this week on his stance for either supporting or not supporting the expansion of vouchers for the Jackson-Madison County School District. He did comment, however, that he believes the school district, director and board are moving in the right direction after decades of problems.
About the Author: Jason Vaughn, Media Coordinator for The Tennessee Conservative ~ Jason previously worked for a legacy publishing company based in Crossville, TN in a variety of roles through his career. Most recently, he served as Deputy Director for their flagship publication. Prior, he was a freelance journalist writing articles that appeared in the Herald Citizen, the Crossville Chronicle and The Oracle among others. He graduated from Tennessee Technological University with a Bachelor’s in English-Journalism, with minors in Broadcast Journalism and History. Contact Jason at news@TennesseeConservativeNews.com