Bill Lee

Voucher bill passes Senate on 20-13 vote

The Senate has voted 20-13 to pass Gov. Bill Lee’s school voucher bill.

There are still major differences with the House, which passed its version by a bare minimum 50 votes earlier this week.

The Senate vote came after the chamber rushed to swear in new Republican member Bill Powers (R-Clarksville). Powers voted for the bill despite declaring during the campaign that he opposed vouchers.

It takes 17 votes for bills to pass the chamber.

Voucher bill clears House floor, Senate committee by single vote each

It was a day for close votes for Gov. Bill Lee’s school voucher proposal. First, the measure received the bare minimum number of votes in a 6-5 decision by the Senate Finance Committee to send the bill to a full floor vote. Then, House Speaker Glen Casada (R-Franklin) had to keep the voting board open for 40 minutes in order to persuade a lone holdout — Rep. Jason Zachary (R-Knoxville) — to change his vote from no to yes and get the bill the 50 votes it needed to pass.

Here’s your Senate Finance Committee vote in graphical form.

Senators voting yes were, from left, Brian Kelsey, John Stevens, Ferrell Haile, Todd Gardenhire, and Bo Watson. Voting no were Joey Hensley, Ken Yager, Brenda Gilmore, Jeff Yarbro, and Richard Briggs.

Here’s the House vote:

Representatives voting aye were: Baum, Boyd, Carter, Cepicky, Crawford, Curcio, Daniel, DeBerry, Doggett, Dunn, Eldridge, Faison, Farmer, Garrett, Hall, Helton, Hill M, Hill T, Holt, Howell, Hulsey, Hurt, Johnson C, Kumar, Lafferty, Lamberth, Leatherwood, Littleton, Lynn, Marsh, Moon, Ogles, Powers, Ragan, Reedy, Rudd, Rudder, Sanderson, Sexton J, Sherrell, Smith, Sparks, Terry, Tillis, Todd, Van Huss, White, Williams, Zachary, Mr. Speaker Casada — 50.

Representatives voting no were: Beck, Bricken, Byrd, Calfee, Camper, Carr, Chism, Clemmons, Cochran, Coley, Cooper, Dixie, Freeman, Gant, Griffey, Hakeem, Halford, Hardaway, Haston, Hawk, Hazlewood, Hicks, Hodges, Holsclaw, Jernigan, Johnson G, Keisling, Lamar, Love, Miller, Mitchell, Parkinson, Potts, Powell, Ramsey, Russell, Sexton C, Shaw, Staples, Stewart, Thompson, Towns, Travis, Vaughan, Weaver, Whitson, Windle, Wright — 48.

Voucher bill to be dialed back to apply to just Shelby and Davidson

Gov. Bill Lee speaks at a Philips event in Nashville on April 2, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

After many twists and turns, Gov. Bill Lee’s expanded school voucher bill is headed for a floor vote in the House this week. And in the Senate, the bill is being dialed back to apply only to the counties encompassing Nashville and Memphis.

The Education Saving Account proposal started out as applying to any district in which three or more schools fell in the bottom 10%. That would have meant Shelby, Davidson, Knox, Hamilton, and Madison Counties. Several rural lawmakers were worried that the next listing of priority schools could plunge their home districts into the bottom 10% and thus open the floodgates of unwanted vouchers in their home areas, too.

Lee promised a “hold harmless” provision for districts where the ESA program would be made available by creating a fund outside the Basic Education Program formula to reimburse them for the state money that goes away when students leave to take ESAs. That provision was largely abandoned in the House to instead have much of that money flow toward rural districts with priority schools. The Senate appears less enamored by that approach.

The ESA’s themselves have created controversy by allowing parents to spend the $7,300 per year on educational items beyond tuition, including electronic equipment, uniforms, and college savings. Critics worry that that will open the program up to abuse.

Homeschooling was stripped out of the House bill, but remains in the Senate version. Both chambers’ bills would create call for a citizenship test despite a U.S. Supreme Court ruling requiring states to provide K-12 education to all students regardless of their immigration status.

The bill is scheduled for a House floor vote on Tuesday and for the Senate Finance Committee on Wednesday.

House changes to voucher bill aimed at capturing rural vote

Rep. Matthew Hill (R-Jonesborough) speaks to reporters in the House chamber in Nashville on April 17, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

House leaders say amendments to Gov. Bill Lee’s school voucher proposal will bring previously wary rural lawmakers on board by directing grant money to some of their struggling schools.

Rep. Matthew Hill (R-Jonesborough), a longtime voucher opponent, said the updates to the bill have caused him to change his position on the Education Savings Account, or ESA, measure. House leadership hopes that changes will give the bill a significant cushion of votes to get it through its final committee hurdle and on the House floor.

Senate supporters moving a vastly different version are still trying to muster the votes to get the bill out of the Finance Committee.

Reporters threatened with arrest at state Capitol

Reporters covering a protest outside Gov. Bill Lee’s office in the state Capitol on Tuesday afternoon were threatened with arrest if they didn’t leave the building.

“It is our understanding that Highway Patrol officers followed their standard protocol for when the Capitol building closes to the public,” Lee spokesman Chris Walker said in a statement to The Tennessean. “However, we do not condone threatening of arrest to reporters while they are doing their jobs in trying to cover news.”

It’s unclear when it became Safety Department protocol to remove journalists from the building at 4:30 p.m. The first floor of the Capitol houses the govenror’s office, Cabinet members, and the state’s constitutional officers (who are part of the legislative branch). The House and Senate chambers are located on the second floor, where meetings are often held late into the evening.

The protesters were demanding Lee call on state Rep. David Byrd (R-Waynesboro) to resign. Byrd is accused of sexual misconduct with teenage basketball players when he was a girls high school basketball coach in the 1980s.

Never assume? Lee loses key Chattanooga Republican on voucher bill

Legislative leaders kick off the joint convention to inaugurate Gov. Bill Lee in Nashville on Jan. 19, 2019. From left at podium are House Majority Leader William Lamberth, Senate Speaker Randy McNally, Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson, and House Speaker Glen Casada. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Republican Gov. Bill Lee’s administration needs six votes to get its school voucher bill out of the Senate Finance Committee. Until recently, outspoken Sen. Todd Gardenhire (R-Chattanooga) was believed to be among those expected to vote to advance the measure. Not so, reports Andy Sher of the Chattanooga Times Free Press.

“I’d carried every voucher bill for the past six years,” Gardenhire told the paper. “But this was one I could not go along with.”

(Full disclosure: The print edition of The Tennessee Journal was among those buying into the assumption that Gardenhire would be among the bill’s supporters.)

Gardenhire has long fought to make in-state tuition rates available to children brought to the country illegally. A provision of the voucher bill aimed to screen the immigration status of K-12 students is a major reason for Gardenhire’s opposition.

“As you know, I’ve been a big proponent of making sure they get an education they’re supposed to get,” said Gardenhire. “And [Lee] and I have a fundamental disagreement on that.”

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Here’s what is in the Senate version of the voucher bill

Gov. Bill Lee speaks at a Philips event in Nashville on April 2, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

The Senate version of Gov. Bill Lee’s school voucher proposal would double the number of students who could participate in the Education Savings Account program to 30,000.

The measure scheduled to be heard in the Senate Education Committee on Wednesday would also dial back the testing requirements for students going to private school.

Instead of requiring the same TCAP test for math and English (but not science or social studies) that is administered to public school students, private schools could give their students a “nationally norm-referenced test” approved by the state Education Department. Examples of those standardized tests include the ACT and PARCC. That’s a provision likely to further outrage public school teachers who have long complained about the state-specific testing regimen.

Just as in the House bill, the program would be capped at 5,000 students in the first year, followed by increments of 2,500 in the next four years. But while the lower chamber’s bill envisions limiting the pilot program at 15,000, the Senate bill would continue to allow the program to grow by 2,500 students each ensuing year until it reaches an enrollment of 30,000.

Homeschooling appears to make a comeback in the Senate bill after being excised from the House version.

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Lee orders state Capitol flags to be flown at half-staff in honor of former Rep. Ben West Jr.

Former Rep. Ben West Jr., a 26-year member of the state House, died last week at age 78. Republican Gov. Bill Lee has ordered flags at the state Capitol to be flown at half-staff on Saturday in the former lawmaker’s memory.

West, a Democrat, represented the Hermitage, Donelson, and Old Hickory portions of Nashville until his retirement in 2010. His father, Ben West Sr., was the mayor of Nashville from 1951 to 1963. His brother, Jay, was a former vice mayor and lobbyist, who died in 2017.

West considered a bid for Congress when then-U.S. Rep. Bob Clement (D-Nashville) was considering a bid to statewide office. West ultimately decided against running and the seat was won by Democrat Jim Cooper.

West had a flair for the bombastic when he was at the Statehouse, sometimes quarreling publicly with is colleagues but often defusing tension with a joke. He angered then-House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh (D-Covington) through his vocal opposition to a state income tax in the early 2000s — and his embrace of protesters who circled the Capitol beeping their horns. But Naifeh kept West on as a committee chairman until he asked to step down from leadership in 2007.

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School choice update: Champagne on ice?

Gov. Bill Lee speaks at a Philips event in Nashville on April 2, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Gov. Bill Lee’s administration has been touting the “momentum” of his school choice agenda so far. His charter school authorizer bill has kept its forward momentum through the committee system, but his voucher-like Education Savings Account, or ESA, proposal was put on ice in the Senate until next week.

Proponents attribute the hiccup to time conflicts as committees do the heavy lifting needed to keep the legislature on track for a timely adjournment. But privately, some acknowledge there is going to have to be a combination of heavy whipping of recalcitrant lawmakers and tweaking of the bill to help it clear House committees and get a favorable floor vote.

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Who was at the closed-door DeVos meeting?

While reporters headed out to set up for a photo-op and gaggle at a Nashville charter school, Gov. Bill Lee and U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos hosted a closed-door roundtable in a conference room in the state Capitol. The specifics of what was discussed were not divulged, but attendees helpfully took photos to give hints about who was there.

Besides the usual suspects of Senate and House leadership, the Beacon Center appears to have been heavily represented with Vice Chairman Joe Scarlett (the retired head of Tractor Supply Co.), board member Fred Decosimo (Lee’s campaign treasurer), and President Justin Owen. Others included Lee Barfield (a former lobbyist and longtime voucher advocate), Victor Evans (of TennesseeCAN), Hugh Morrow (president of Ruby Falls), Bradley Jackson (head of the state Camber), and Mark Gill (president of Rodgers Capital Group). Not pictured is Scarlett’s daughter, Tara.

Seemingly not in attendance? State Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn. (We hear she was out of town on TNReady business)

Recognize anyone else?

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