Gov. Bill Lee’s school voucher plan passed a key committee Wednesday in the Tennessee General Assembly.
Several GOP lawmakers still have reservations about the proposal, but after a surprise appearance by a top Republican, most agreed to push it forward.
The House Education Committee was packed to capacity, with school voucher advocates wearing white and opponents in red. Committee Chairman Mark White, R-Memphis, opened the debate on Lee's proposal to create new Education Savings Accounts, HB 939/SB 795, by warning members not to play to the audience.
"I’m going to hold you to talking about the bill," White told committee members, "not the 50,000-foot level of your belief on education reform."
The discussion lasted about two hours, with Republicans and Democrats alike expressing concerns over ESAs. Critics contend they'll drain money away from public schools, with few safeguards to ensure parents are spending wisely toward their children's education.
But the tone of the meeting changed when House Speaker Glen Casada made an unusual appearance.
As speaker, Casada has the right to vote on any piece of legislation in committee, but his predecessors have usually reserved that power for breaking ties. Casada, however, took a seat next to one holdout lawmaker and cast the first vote for the legislation. Most GOP lawmakers, including some skeptics, followed his lead.
One member who didn’t vote for the proposal was freshman Rep. Mark Cochran of East Tennessee. Afterward, he acknowledged feeling pressured by Casada’s presence.
"That’s part of the job. That’s what I signed up for. That’s what I ran for the last year to do," Cochran told WPLN after the vote. "And I knew there’d be some pressure-filled situations.”
Another notable vote against the bill came from state Rep. David Byrd, a Waynesboro educator who's been under fire since allegations emerged last year that he engaged in sexual acts with high school girls when he was their coach in the 1980s. Casada has stood by Byrd despite calls to resign.
During the hearing, Byrd said he wanted to increase parental engagement in schools, and doubted a voucher plan would do that.
Opponents did force one change to the legislation. Language was added that explicitly bars undocumented immigrants from receiving ESAs. Immigrant rights advocates say that provision is potentially discriminatory and could result in the state losing federal funding.
The governor’s office says it expect holdouts to try to force more changes as the bill moves to the House floor. But they intend to push the measure through — with the help of legislative leadership.