vouchers

After thoughts of pumping brakes, full steam a head on voucher bill

Newly-elected House Speaker Glen Casada gestures toward his predecessor, Beth Harwell, in the House chamber on Jan. 8, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

After Gov. Bill Lee’s proposal to create a statewide charter authorizer nearly bogged down in the House Education Committee last week, there was talk that the next big piece of legislation aimed at creating voucher-like education savings accounts might need another week to ripen before heading through the same panel.

Looks like that delay is now off the table.

The Lee administration is pressing to present the bill to the House Education Committee on Wednesday.

The charter authorizer bill advanced out of that committee on a 13-9 vote, but only after House Speaker Glen Casada (R-Franklin) came to the panel to personally intervene. Casada was able to get several freshman Republican who voiced concerns about the measure to get on board.

The bill also got the support of embattled Rep. David Byrd (R-Waynesboro), whom school choice advocates have tried for years to to defeat because of his support for traditional public schools.

Maybe Casada will be at the meeting from the start on Wednesday?

Gov. Lee talks education savings accounts before first bill hearing

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)

Republican Gov. Bill Lee spoke to reporters at the Cordell Hull building just minutes before his bill seeking to introduce education savings accounts, or ESAs, in Tennessee. (UPDATE: The bill cleared the subcommittee on a voice vote.) Here’s a transcript of what Lee had to say:

Lee: Homeschooling parents are very encouraged by the ESA bill. As more folks understand my commitment to strengthening public schools and providing choice at the same time, I think it’s something that’s really going to help Tennessee. I’m really excited about it.

Q: Which homeschoolers will be eligible?

Lee: If a family is in the district that qualifies, and they are currently in a public school, then they would qualify for an ESA.

Q: Any concerns about possibility of fraud?

Lee: There’s a strong accountability component to this in that money can only be used for approved purchases and approved vendors, so that we can be certain that the money that goes with the child will go for educational expenses only.

Q: The bill doesn’t require attendance in failing school. One could attend a fairly good public school and still qualify. What’s the rationale?

Lee: The goal is for children who are in a district that have failing schools. So, it’s targeted at kids in failing schools. Most kids that are not in failing schools will stay in their public schools. Data has shown that. Our public schools across Tennessee are high quality public schools for the most part. That’s why we’re investing so heavily in them. That’s why I believe in public schools. And I think the children that are in failing schools should have an opportunity to have access. And this is what that is targeted at.

Q: Embattled Rep. David Byrd could be key to the fate of this bill. Will pressure be brought to bear to influence his vote?

Lee: I am so trusting that representatives and legislators will vote on what they think is best for Tennesseans. That’s what I’m asking them to do, is to consider these children that I’m hopeful will have a choice as a result of this besides the choice of a failing school. And I trust that’s going to happen.

Here’s a look at income limits for Lee’s school voucher proposal

Gov. Bill Lee delivers his first State of the State address in Nashville on March 4, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Gov. Bill Lee’s proposal to provide vouchers to cover private school tuition through education savings accounts, or ESAs, would limit eligibility to families earning double the maximum family income to qualify for free and reduced-price lunches. That school lunch program is pegged to 185% of federal poverty guidelines.

Eligibility for the ESA program would be limited to families living within counties with at least three schools in the bottom 10% — but actual attendance in a failing school would not be required to qualify.

A household is defined as the total number of parents and children in the family. Here’s a look at what those limits would be under the proposal headed for its first House subcommittee hearing this week:

Household size Federal poverty guidelines Reduced Price Meals—185% Tennessee ESA proposal
2  $     16,460  $     30,451  $     60,902
3  $     20,780  $     38,443  $     76,886
4  $     25,100  $     46,435  $     92,870
5  $     29,420  $     54,427  $   108,854
6  $     33,740  $     62,419  $   124,838
7  $     38,060  $     70,411  $   140,822
8  $     42,380  $     78,403  $   156,806

School voucher bill DOA for 2018 legislative session?

State Sen. Brian Kelsey, a leading crusader for school voucher legislation that has failed in past years, says he won’t push the issue in the 2018 session, reports Clakbeat Tennessee.

“I listen to my community. Right now, there’s not enough parental support,” the Germantown Republican lawmaker told Chalkbeat after sharing the news with Shelby County’s legislative delegation.

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Lee calls for more school choice, says ‘receptions that entertain legislators’ should be stopped

Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Lee is calling for more school choice in Tennessee and an end to lobbyist-sponsored receptions for state legislators, reports the Associated Press.

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Democrat criticizes closed-door meeting of voucher advocates Kelsey ad DeVos

State Sen. Brian Kelsey, a leading advocate in so-unsuccessful efforts to establish a school voucher system in Tennessee, met behind closed doors Monday with U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, reports The Tennessean. Tennessee Democratic Party Chair Mary Mancini denounced the meeting and the participants.

The meeting was disclosed on the U.S. secretary of education’s website containing DeVos’ weekly schedule.

DeVos, a supporter of charter schools and using public funds to send children to private school, known as vouchers, is a frequent target for Democrats. Noting Kelsey has repeatedly introduced legislation to allow school vouchers, Mancini said, “Public schools in every ZIP code need to be fully funded, and privatization would stretch funding even thinner than it currently is, hurting schools in every part of the state.”

… In addition to Kelsey’s work on vouchers, Mancini also criticized his support for DeVos. In February, Kelsey stumped for DeVos while she was undergoing a tense confirmation process.

… “It seems clear that Senator Kelsey is pushing programs devised by the special interests funding his campaigns and supported by extremists like Secretary DeVos,” Mancini said. “Tennesseans deserve to know what this meeting was about and why Senator Kelsey continues to file legislation that would devastate our public schools.”

Kelsey and his legislative assistant did not respond to multiple requests for comment about the meeting with DeVos.

School voucher bill dies in House Budget Sub

This year’s leading school voucher bill, declared a “pilot project” that would apply only in Shelby County, died quietly in the House Budget Subcommittee Wednesday.

Rep. Harry Brooks, R-Knoxville, sponsor of HB126, officially put off further consideration until next year in the Budget Subcommittee. Voucher bills have failed repeatedly in the past six years and proponents had hoped that narrowing this year’s version to just Shelby County would change the tradition.

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Shelby-only voucher bill gets House committee approval

A school voucher bill that targets Shelby County only moved through its first major House panel Tuesday amid testy debate among Memphis-area representatives, reports the Times-Free Press.

Education Administration and Planning Committee members spent nearly two hours fighting over the measure (HB126), which creates a five-year pilot project in which poorer parents in low-performing schools can use public tax dollars to send their children to private and religious schools.

Then they passed the bill, sponsored by Rep. Harry Brooks, R-Memphis, the committee’s chairman. It now goes to other House panels. A similar bill is moving in the Senate. (Note: The bill itself was approved on voice vote; on an earlier key amendment backed by Brooks, the roll call vote was 11-5.)

Brooks’ bill retreats from the more ambitious, years-long effort by proponents to provide taxpayer-funded vouchers or “opportunity scholarships” to low-income students across Tennessee attending priority schools falling into the bottom 5 percent on academic performance.

Those previous efforts would have impacted Hamilton County, Knox County, Metro Nashville, Shelby County (Memphis) and Hardemann County.

But a version of the broader approach is in another bill that remains in committee.

Following the bill’s approval, Roy Herron, an attorney who represents Tennessee’s small school districts, said he’s concerned that if the voucher bill is approved for the Shelby County school system, other rural and urban systems like Hamilton’s will be under threat of similar treatment.

“Memphis is not Las Vegas,” said Herron, a former state senator. “What happens in Memphis won’t stay in Memphis.”

Proponents like to characterize vouchers as “opportunity scholarships,” saying they give parents with children “trapped” in failing public schools more choice. Critics say the loss of money is a harpoon into the side of public education.

Fiscal note estimates Shelby County to lose $18M in funding with voucher bill

A bill to set up a school voucher system would mean loss of about $18 million per year in state funding for schools in Shelby County, the only place that the measure would apply in a measure sponsored by Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, and Rep. Harry Brooks, R-Knoxville.

The estimate is included in the fiscal note for HB126. The Commercial Appeal has comments from Kelsey:

Kelsey said Monday the funding loss for SCS would be proportional to the number of students the district would no longer have to educate. The bill also only diverts state money, and requires students using a voucher to be counted toward the enrollment of their local school district. That means the district still retains local funds for them.

“The beauty is they no longer have to educate the child, and yet they’re still getting paid some money,” Kelsey said.

Kelsey’s bill has support, including from co-sponsors Rep. Harry Brooks, R-Knoxville and Sen. Reginald Tate, D-Memphis. But it’s not the only pending legislation aiming to create a voucher program. Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, has a broader bill competing in the House. 

SCS said in a statement the district is monitoring the legislation as it progresses but that it’s too early to determine its full fiscal impact.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson previously questioned whether such a bill would be constitutional because it targets only one area. Kelsey said previously he believes his program is constitutional because it’s a pilot program.

The district and school board have also been vocally opposed to any voucher bill.

GOP operative trashes TEA school voucher poll

In a memo prepared by the polling firm OnMessage and sent to Republican legislators, veteran GOP political operative Ward Baker seeks to debunk a Tennessee Education Association memo sent to all legislators earlier declaring that its polling shows a majority of Republican voters oppose school vouchers. (The TEA press release is posted HERE.)

The email subject line says “The TEA Poll is Hogwash.” Baker’s introductory remarks:

Like many of you, I had a feeling that the “poll” announced by the teachers union looked sketchy. It is. It’s about as accurate as me saying I have hair like Willie Nelson. (Note: Baker is bald.) The team at OnMessage, Inc., who has a long history of reliable polling in Tennessee and national politics, have put together the attached analysis that explains exactly why it cannot be trusted as a reliable poll. Bottom line: Political scientists, consultants, and polling firms worth their salt know that any poll is useless if you randomly aggregate data over the course of seven months the way that TEA did.

While I was at the NRSC, we used serious pollsters and none of them would sign their name to what the TEA is peddling. They are clearly trying to manipulate legislators for their own agenda with fake polling. The “poll” saying four out of five dentists use Trident is more reliable than this hogwash.

The full memo is available by clicking on this link: tea-memo