vouchers

Voucher applications go live amid coronavirus crisis

Applications are going live for the state’s new school voucher program amid the ongoing coronavirus crisis that has caused public schools to close their doors for several weeks.

Applications for the education savings accounts, or ESAs, will be accepted through April 29 — five days after Gov. Bill Lee’s current recommendation for schools to remain closed.

Lee caught many lawmakers off guard when he announced he would seek to launch the voucher program this coming August rather than wait to do so in 2021, a non-election year. But he nonetheless pressed ahead this year, even while making deep cuts to other proposed new programs amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Here’s a video explaining the applications process:

House GOP leaders: ‘Trust us’ on secret budget discussions

The state Capitol was closed to visitors on March 16, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

After the House Republican supermajority holed up behind closed doors for 75 minutes to discuss the massive overhaul of the state’s budget in response to the coronavirus crisis, Majority Leader William Lamberth (R-Portland) and Caucus Chairman Jeremy Faison (R-Cosby) spoke to reporters about their justifications for the secret meeting.

Here’s a partial transcript of what was said:

Lamberth: We’re doing everything we can to make sure it’s a transparent process. That includes, from time to time having a caucus meeting that is a closed caucus meeting so they can merely have the information, but no decisions were made.

Q: Just to clarify, a closed caucus meeting is transparent?

Lamberth: Absolutely. It will be prepare us to be able to discuss this later. And everything that was said in that room will be said again on the record. We emphasized that to the members. No decisions were made, no votes were taken whatsoever, and none will be taken in there. What was done was to lay out a schedule for what will happen for the rest of the day, and to lay out the information they have that will be provided to anyone else who wants it.

Q: How will the public know what that schedule is?

Lamberth: What we’re asking is for you to trust us right now. We will continue to get that information out there every single day.

[….]

Q: The Senate rules dictate that when the caucus meets, because they have a majority of the chamber, they must be open. Why have you guys not followed suit, and why should the House supermajority be able to talk behind closed doors?

Faison: Obviously, we don’t follow what the Senate does. We do what we believe is right for our people and our members.

Q: And it’s right to meet behind closed doors when you have a supermajority?

Faison: If we were making a decision, or taking a vote, or whipping a vote or anything like that, I would be vehemently against closing our doors.

[…]

Q: What about the funding for the Education Savings Account law. Was that discussed?

Faison: We discussed what is currently in the budget that deals with ESAs, and the lack of it dealing with ESAs. There’s appropriation in this budget that a lot of people erroneously thought had something to do with implementing ESAs or making ESAs happen. In fact, the money that’s appropriated in this current budget is money that will go to the public schools in Nashville and Memphis.

Q: But that’s for the implementation of the ESA program.

Faison: It does not have anything to do with the implementation of the program. What it has to do with is if a student and their guardian chooses to come out of a public school, the money that follows them goes to the new school they’re going to and we have created a whole separate pot of money that holds that public school harmless. …. We’re in a place right now that we’re not going to get into the politics of what we did with the bills we passed last year.

[…]

Q:  Surely the money could be used to go toward the raises for teachers whose raises are going to be cut?

Faison: We do have a 2% raise for teachers. We’ve dialed back on a lot of stuff.

Q: Why not use the $37 million for the ESA program for teacher raises? If the program isn’t funded, it can’t go forward.

Lamberth: That is absolutely not true. And as my friend, you know that is not true. You are well aware what this money is for. Whatever talking point you got from the Democratic caucus is not accurate. This money in this budget goes to public schools. You know it and I would appreciate it you get that information out there.

Q: As a reminder, 20 Republicans voted against this legislation, so it’s not just Democrats.

Lamberth: That is a Democratic talking point, and you know it. This money goes to public schools. The ESA program can go forward without this money. It is our preference is to backfill any of that money to a public school.. That’s what this money goes to. Period.

About that whole voucher tax thing…

Gov. Bill Lee speaks to reporters on March 19, 2019, about his proposal to introduce an education savings account program in Tennessee. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

The revelation that Tennessee’s new school vouchers could well be considered taxable income by the IRS set off a furor at the statehouse among both supporters and opponents of the “education savings account” law.

Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn’s statement to the House Finance Committee appeared fairly unequivocal when asked during a Monday hearing: “My understanding is this is taxable, yes.”

Voucher supporters were quick to pounce, noting that the law includes a provision that states the more than $7,300 vouchers would not be considered income. But the caveat there is the state can only write legislation affecting Tennessee law. The IRS might have different ideas.

Schwinn told reporters she had come to that determination in consultation with state Attorney General Herbert Slatery’s office. But a spokeswoman for the AG said his office would not be in a position to weigh in on federal tax matters.

Schwinn’s spokeswoman later issued a new statement seeking to clarify matters:

The Commissioner’s comments at the budget hearing today were intended to reflect the possible need for the program’s filing and issuance of federal information reporting returns rather than taxability. We are continuing to work through the details of what will be required for ESA program implementation.

So where does that leave things for parents concerned about being hit with a big tax bill if they take the vouchers? It remains unclear. And now Democratic lawmakers are (perhaps inevitably) asking for a delay in the bill’s implementation so it can all be figured out.

Feds could consider school vouchers taxable income

Gov. Bill Lee speaks at the state Capitol on Sept. 16, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn told lawmakers Monday that the federal government may consider money families receive under the Gov. Bill Lee’s school voucher program as taxable income.

(Update: There may be some backtracking going on.)

That may come as a surprise to lawmakers who voted for the bill that includes a provision stating that: “Funds received pursuant to this part …. do not constitute income of a parent of a participating student under title 67, chapter 2 or any other state law.”

As enacted, families in the Metro Nashville and Shelby County school districts earning up to 2.6 times the federal poverty level will be eligible for the program offering debit cards worth $7,376 — the equivalent of the average amount provided per student under the state’s school funding formula — to spend on expenses related to private school education. For a family of five, the income limit would be set at $76,500.

Schwinn told reporters after a House budget hearing that the tax determination was reached in consultation with the state Attorney General’s office.

Dunn won’t seek re-election to House in 2020

House Speaker Pro Tem Bill Dunn (R-Knoxville) presents school voucher legislation on May 1, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Rep. Bill Dunn of Knoxville, the longest-serving Republican in the state House, says he won’t run for re-election next year. Dunn was the lead House sponsor of this year’s controversial school voucher legislation. He had already drawn a primary opponent.

“After the 2019 session was over, and we had passed Educational Savings Accounts legislation, as well as one of the most pro-life measures in the country, House Bill 1029, I decided it was the right time to conclude my public service on a high note,” Dunn said in a statement.

Here’s the full release:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — State Representative Bill Dunn (R-Knoxville) today announced he will not seek re-election to the Tennessee House of Representatives in 2020.

Dunn currently serves as Speaker Pro Tempore — the second ranking member of the Tennessee House of Representatives. He recently was the acting Speaker of the House due to the resignation of the previous Speaker. Dunn was first elected to the General Assembly to represent the citizens of House District 16 in 1994, making him the longest tenured Republican House member now serving.

“After the 2019 session was over, and we had passed Educational Savings Accounts legislation, as well as one of the most pro-life measures in the country, House Bill 1029, I decided it was the right time to conclude my public service on a high note.”

Dunn said that he wanted to go ahead and make his plans known so that those interested in running for the seat could start making their own plans.

“I am grateful for the opportunity to serve the citizens of our community for the past 26 years as a member of the Tennessee House of Representatives. I have reached a point in my life where it is time for me to seek new challenges. I am not sure what my future holds, but I look forward to many new and exciting adventures.”

During his tenure, Tennessee students became the fastest improving in the entire nation across math, reading and science. In 2019, Dunn championed an initiative that establishes the Tennessee Education Savings Account Pilot Program which gives students and their families the opportunity to select the school that most meets their educational needs.

Additionally, Dunn has been an unwavering and passionate voice for the Right to Life. He has fought to strengthen Tennessee’s pro-life laws in recent years and has strongly supported initiatives to protect unborn children and their mothers.  This year, the legislature passed one of the country’s strongest pro-life measures, House Bill 1029, which restores Tennessee’s pre-1973 pro-life laws when the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade.

Dunn was tireless in pursuing road improvements in the district, and he will leave office with major improvements to Emory Road in Powell, Highway 33 in Halls, and the I-640/Broadway interchange in Fountain City.

Dunn and his Republican colleagues have also cut more than $700 million in taxes since 2011, and they have supported a business-friendly environment that has led to statewide unemployment rates remaining near historic low levels.

“I will be leaving office with our state in a stronger position than when I first came to Nashville,” said Dunn. “We have vastly improved our education system, our state is ranked number one in fiscal responsibility, and, because of the conservative leadership, we continue to attract quality jobs.  I appreciate my colleagues for their friendship and for their dedication to the citizens of Tennessee. I represent the best people in the state and thank the constituents of the 16th House District for the opportunity they have given me to serve them and the great state of Tennessee.”

Bill Dunn is Speaker Pro-Tempore for the 111th Tennessee General Assembly. Dunn is also a member of the House Calendar & Rules, Education, Government Operations, and Naming, Designating & Private Acts and Transportation Committees. He is also a member of the House Curriculum, Testing, and Innovation, and the House Infrastructure Subcommittees, as well as the Judiciary & Government Subcommittee of Joint Government Operations Committee. Dunn lives in Knoxville and represents Tennessee House District 16, which includes part of Knox County.

Voucher sponsor Bill Dunn draws GOP primary challenger

House Speaker Pro Tem Bill Dunn (R-Knoxville) presents school voucher legislation on May 1, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Rep. Bill Dunn, the lead House sponsor of this year’s school voucher bill, has drawn a primary challenge from Patti Bounds, a former teacher and Knox County school board member, Knox TN Today reports.

“I opened the bank account today,” Bounds told the publication.  “And now it feels real.”

Bounds opposes the “Education Savings Account” measure enacted at first-year Gov. Bill Lee’s behest. Dunn has been a longtime supporter voucher proposals. He has served in the General Assembly since 1994. He currently serves as speaker pro tem, the ceremonial No. 2 position in the House.

It’s on! Bounds vs. Dunn 2020

Dunn is the second incumbent to draw a primary opponent over the voucher issue. Freshman Rep. Tom Leatherwood (R-Arlington), who voted for the education savings account bill, has drawn a primary challenge from Lee Mills, a former Shelby County GOP
chairman who opposes the measure..

 

Pro-voucher group targets freshman Republican in online ads

A national pro-voucher group is going on the attack against at least one lawmaker who voted against Gov. Bill Lee’s signature “education savings account” legislation, the AP’s Jonathan Mattise and Kimberlee Kruesi report.

The American Federation for Children, which is once chaired by U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, has run online ads targeting freshman Rep. Mark Cochran (R-Englewood) as having “turned his back on President Trump” by voting against the bill.

An American Federation for Children ad targeting Rep. Mark Cochran.

Cochran was hardly alone in opposing the voucher measure. The roll call was 49-49 on the House floor in May, but then-Speaker Glen Casada (R-Franklin) kept the voting board open for 40 minutes in an effort to get one member to flip to the ‘yes’ column.

Among the other Republican opponents of the bill: Newly-elected House Speaker Cameron Sexton (R-Crossville).

A spokesman for the Tennessee chapter of the American Federation for Children refused to comment about the ad or whether other lawmakers might be targeted. The group spent about $6,400 in direct mailers supporting Cochran in last year’s election.

“This type of activity obviously doesn’t have an impact on me and is just part of politics,” Cochran said in a statement to the AP. “At this point, I’m looking ahead at our next session and am excited about the progress we’ll continue to make for Tennesseans.”

The Tennessee Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, was critical of the attack ads.

“They not only attack pro-public school legislators, they’ve sent positive mail into districts of pro-voucher legislators,” said Jim Wrye, the organization’s spokesman and lobbyist. “They hide vouchers as well as they can on the mailer. Yet as any Tennessee teacher knows, when you’re afraid to explain what you’ve done, you know it’s wrong.”

Report: Feds and TBI involved in probe of voucher vote

Rep. John Mark Windle (D-Livingston) speaks with House Finance Chair Susan Lynn (R-Mt. Juliet) in the House chamber on April 23, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Despite the housecleaning that has taken place in the lower chamber of the General Assembly, state and federal officials are still looking into allegations that former Speaker Glen Casada offered inducements to lawmakers in exchange for supporting controversial voucher legislation, The Daily Memphian’s Sam Stockard reports.

The publication confirmed that agents with the FBI and Tennessee Bureau of Investigation have spoken to lawmakers about allegations that Casada and his staff about made promises as part of an effort to break a 49-49 vote on the bill in May. Casada kept the board open for more than 40 minutes to try to make the case to various lawmakers, including on the balcony outside the House chamber.

Casada has denied any wrongdoing, calling allegations of inducements “unequivocally false.”

State Rep. Jim Coley (R-Bartlett) said the move to keep the board open  set a bad precedent for close votes.

“It’s going to be very interesting to see what happens because it was certainly improper and one of the things Glen did that unraveled his speakership,” Coley said.

Democratic Rep. G.A. Hardaway of Memphis, the chairman of the Tennessee Black Caucus of State Legislators, is preparing a letter to TBI Director David Rausch requesting an investigation into potential “public corruption,” in connection with the voucher vote.

One area of widespread speculation is whether Rep. John Mark Windle (D-Livingston), who recently became a full colonel in the Tennessee National Guard, was offered a promotion to general if he switched his vote to favor the voucher bill.

Windle has confirmed a conversation took place in which Casada suggested he could be made a general if he supported the bill. But he remained in the ‘no’ column.

“I voted no on the bill as a matter of principle, and that vote decision did not change. The people of Fentress, Jackson, Morgan and Overton counties are fiercely independent, and their vote is not for sale,” Windle said in a statement after the allegations were first made public. “After the vote, as a former prosecutor, I sought the guidance of Tennessee ethics authorities and followed their recommendations.”

Cagle: Casada downfall a reminder that lawmakers don’t work for governor

House Speaker Glen Casada (R-Franklin), right, meets with colleagues on the Senate floor on May 1, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Frank Cagle, the former Knoxville News Sentinel managing editor and spokesman for Republican Van Hilleary’s 2002 gubernatorial campaign, says there’s a clear lesson for lawmakers in the implosion of Rep. Glen Casada’s speakership:

Anybody who thinks about going all-in for the governor instead of listening to the folks back home needs to remember Casada. Perhaps it’s good for Casada to hang around in the House as a walking object lesson. If you sold your soul on the voucher vote because Casada offered you incentives, where are your incentives now?

Cagle had his own run-in with the forces of Casada this year. A day after he wrote a Knox TN Today column blasting the voucher bill, his nomination to the state Textbook and Instructional Materials Quality Commission was killed in the House. Eight weeks later, the voucher bill had been signed into law, Casada was on his way out, and Cagle was back on the textbook panel as a recess appointment by Senate Speaker Randy McNally (R-
Oak Ridge).

Read Cagle’s full column here:

The Casada Lesson: You don’t work for the governor

Will Sexton tap the brakes on early roll-out of voucher program?

Rep. Cameron Sexton (R-Crossville) speaks to colleagues before a House Republican Caucus meeting to nominate a new speaker on July 24, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Count Rep. Cameron Sexton, the Republican nominee for House speaker, among the skeptics of Gov. Bill Lee’s push to roll out the school voucher program a year early.

“I do not think it needs to be accelerated at this point,” Sexton told The Tennessean, adding that his colleagues feel the same way.

Read the full story here.