vouchers

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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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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Here are the revised income limits for Lee’s school voucher plan

Gov. Bill Lee speaks at an economic development announcement in Nashville on March 20, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Lawmakers last week advanced a revised version of Gov. Bill Lee’s proposal to create education savings accounts, or ESAs, in five Tennessee counties. Previously, the income limit would have been set at double the upper threshold to receive reduced-priced school lunches, which is 185% of federal poverty guidelines. The revised bill sets that amount at double the free lunch limit, which is 130% of poverty.

The ESAs would be available to parents of children currently enrolled in public schools in Shelby, Davidson, Knox, Hamilton, and Madison counties earning up to 2.6 times the poverty level (down from the 3.7 times of the original bill).

Here’s what that comes out to:

Household Original proposal Revised proposal
2 60,902 42,796
3 76,886 54,028
4 92,870 65,260
5 108,854 76,492
6 124,838 87,724
7 140,822 98,956
8 156,806 110,188

Lee to host Education Secretary DeVos at Nashville roundtable

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

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is coming to Nashville today to join an education forum with Gov. Bill Lee

The Tennessean reports DeVos will attend a roundtable with educators, families, and local officials at Lead Cameron, a charter school. The governor’s office says the visit will highlight school choice benefits as Lee promotes charter schools and school vouchers through so-called education savings accounts.

Lee’s school voucher proposal cleared the House Education Committee last week.

Byrd removed from subcommittee chairmanship following anti-voucher vote

Embattled Rep. David Byrd (R-Waynesboro) attends a House Education Committee meeting in Nashville on March 28, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Embattled state Rep. David Byrd (R-Waynesboro) has been removed as chairman of House education subcommittee a day after voting against Gov. Bill Lee’s school voucher proposal.

House Speaker Glen Casada (R-Franklin) announced the move Thursday, The Tennessean reports.

“Following discussions with members of the House and after careful consideration, I have formally asked Representative Byrd to step down from his position as chairman of the House Education Administration Subcommittee,” Casada said a statement.

Byrd’s chairmanship has been the subject of regular protests at the legislative office complex over allegations of sexual misconduct with teenage basketball players when he was their high school coach in the 1980s. Byrd was overwhelmingly re-elected in November despite revelations that he apologized to one of the women in a recorded phone call.

“Representative Byrd agrees that this is the best path forward in ensuring the House of Representatives can focus on the issues that truly matter to all Tennesseans. This decision is based on input from members and to continue the orderly operations of the House,”  Casada said in the statement.

Byrd has long been a target of school choice proponents for his steadfast opposition to voucher legislation. This year’s voucher bill cleared the House Education Committee on Wednesday on a 14-9 vote. Byrd was among four Republicans who voted against the measure.

Casada supported Byrd during his re-election campaign, and had defended appointing him to his subcommittee chairmanship until Thursday.

UPDATE: Casada’s chief of staff, Cade Cothren, told reporters it would be an “absolute lie” to suggest Byrd’s removal as chairman was linked to his voucher vote.

Lee’s voucher bill: How they voted

Back by popular demand, the TNJ presents the news in collage form.  Here’s how the House Education Committee voted on Gov. Bill Lee’s school voucher proposal:

Representatives voting aye were: Baum, Cepicky, DeBerry, Dunn, Hurt, Leatherwood, Moody, Ragan, Rudder, Sexton J, Weaver, White, Williams, Mr. Speaker Casada. — 14

Representatives voting no were: Byrd, Cochran, Coley, Dixie, Hodges, Love, Parkinson, Vaughan, Windle — 9.

Representatives present and not voting were: Haston — 1.

Voucher bill clears House Education Committee on 14-9 vote

House Speaker Glen Casada (R-Franklin) attends a House Education Committee meeting in Nashville on March 27, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Gov. Bill Lee’s proposal to create a school voucher program in Tennessee has cleared the House Education Committee on a 14-9 vote.

The vote came after lawmakers added language aimed at excluding non-citizens from being eligible for the education savings accounts, a move that would likely draw a court challenge given a U.S. Supreme Court ruling requiring all children be eligible for K-12 education regardless of their immigration status.

Another major change was to largely remove homeschooling from the program.

The bill now moves on the Government Operations Committee and would also have to clear the Finance Committee before reaching the House floor.

Lee meets with freshman Republicans to make case for vouchers

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

Republican Gov. Bill Lee met with freshman Republicans in the House on Tuesday morning to make the case for his proposal to create a voucher-like education savings account program in Tennessee. Word is he got a positive response from the group.

The meeting comes as the Lee administration looks to dial back the ESA legislation by removing homeschooling from the measure. The bill is scheduled for a key House Education Committee vote on Wednesday.

Under the proposal, parents would be given $7,300 debit cards to spend on education-related expenses. That’s raised concerns about accountability, especially given the example of Arizona, where where an audit last year found parents had spent ESA money on non-authorized purchases ranging from movies to beauty supplies.