Both the state House and Senate began advancing a proposal Wednesday that gives any student with an Individualized Education Plan the option to take the federal, state and local money that would be spent on them and attend a private school or alternative program. They could even be homeschooled and use the money for tutors and special therapy.
Roughly 14 percent or 120,000 students in Tennessee have IEPs, as they're commonly known. Personalized learning programs are required under federal law for 14 categories, including learning disabilities, hearing trouble and speech impairment.
“This is a huge, huge change for the state of Tennessee,” Sen. Jim Tracy (R-Shelbyville) said Wednesday as he tried to put off a vote in the Senate Education Committee. "I'm just not comfortable yet."
The panel ended up voting unanimously to approve the bill, known as the "Individualized Education Act." A House Education subcommittee also passed the legislation.
The Beacon Center, a free-market think tank, flew in parents from Florida and Arizona, where similar laws are on the books. They told Tennessee legislators how voucher money paid for a blind student to attend a top-flight private school and for tutors to help homeschool an autistic child.
A representative from the Foundation for Excellence in Education, founded by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, also testified in support.
“It’s not that every public school is terrible and that public schools are the problem," said state policy director Adam Peshek. "It’s just finding the right fit.”
Peshek says in Florida, only 5 to 7 percent of those eligible are using the voucher.
The program could save school districts more money than they would lose, Sen. Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville) said. The official cost estimate concurs. Under the proposal, districts keep 3 percent of the funding that would have paid for services in public schools.
But despite the potential savings, public school administrators still have concerns.
“This appears to be a voucher bill that is much, much broader,” said Lee Harrell, lobbyist for the Tennessee School Boards Association, which also objects to vouchers for low-income students. That bill would be capped at 20,000 students.
Representing superintendents, lobbyist Chuck Cagle pointed out the state has no way to vet the schools or programs receiving this money.
“If you’re going to give a child with special needs a program, that program needs to be attuned to the specific needs of that child, not one that’s simply a program where somebody wants to go that may indeed be nothing more than a feel-good program,” Cagle said.
If Tennessee's bill passes the full House and Senate, the voucher money could be accessible as early as this fall.