Lawmakers Vote To Bring School Vouchers To Tennessee, But With An Increased Price Tag | Nashville Public Radio

Lawmakers Vote To Bring School Vouchers To Tennessee, But With An Increased Price Tag

May 1, 2019

After weeks of negotiations, the Tennessee General Assembly passed Gov. Bill Lee’s biggest education initiative Wednesday.

But the final version has a higher price tag than originally estimated. 

The measure to introduce a school voucher-like program is now expected to cost the state a little over $169 million, according to a fiscal analysis. This is nearly $45 million more than the amount Lee's administration previously announced, which was $125 million by 2024.

Lawmakers in the state House and Senate had been in a stalemate over the details of the Education Savings Account proposal, but both chambers reached a compromise through a conference committee that met Wednesday. 

"This did not happen in a vacuum. We talked to each other all the time," Sen. Dolores Gresham, R-Somerville, told conference committee members. "There has been such a great give-and-take between the House and the Senate, as well as internally with our individual members."

The compromise passed the conference committee, with only one Democrat — Memphis Sen. Raumesh Akbari — voting against it. Rep. Rick Staples, D-Knoxville, voted 'yes' in the hearing. 

Compromise Reached

The measure headed to Gov.  Lee's desk is significantly different than when it was first introduced.

Initially, six school districts — Shelby, Davidson, Knox, Hamilton, Jackson/Madison and the Achievement School District — were included in the program. Now, the bill limits the $7,300 school vouchers to Davidson and Shelby Counties. It also now excludes homeschoolers, who were included in some previous iterations of the legislation.

Students participating in the program would only have to take Tennessee's assessment for math and English, which are fewer subject tests than what students in public schools have to take.

The Senate and the House also had to reach a compromise over eligibility requirements. The House wanted to ask for documents that would prove legal residency, whereas the Senate was satisfied with W-2s. Under the adopted bill, parents would have to show federal income tax return from the previous year, or enrollment in the state’s temporary assistance for needy families (TANF). 

Supporters of the bill like Knoxville Rep. Bill Dunn said the legislation will exclude undocumented immigrants from taking advantage of the education savings accounts. He pointed at the bill including language that declares the program a state or local public benefit. 

"The reason for having that language in there is to make sure you have the proper documentation," Dunn said on the House floor. "That documentation happens to be things that you would have as a U.S. citizens."

Although the fiscal analysis shows multiple dollar amounts, House and Senate leadership all gave different estimates.

The Senate says that by 2024 the program could cost about $169 million, whereas House leadership told reporters after the Senate vote that the program would cost $125 million, the same number initially provided by the Lee administration.

"Fuzzy math like this is how majorities become minorities," said Sen. Steve Dickerson, R-Nashville.

According to the fiscal analysis, another pool of funding would be shifted from school districts to parents in the form of school vouchers. 

Democrats Call Constitutionality Into Question

But Rep. Mike Stewart, the House Democratic Caucus Chair, said that the ESA bill is constitutionally suspect as it's written. He argues that because the bill only includes two counties and excludes 93 other counties, a judge could strike it down. 

"This thing is going to be declared unconstitutional, and it's going to be given statewide application," Stewart said. "Every single person in the state is going to have this bill, if it's passed, applied in their communities."