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.

(Editor’s note: The print version of The Tennessee Journal made the inaccurate assertion that the voucher bill had been put on pause in both chambers. While the Senate version did get moved to next week, the House version was advanced by the Government Operations Committee on Monday. We regret the error.)

But if those concessions go too far, the administration runs the risk of losing some ardent voucher advocates upset at the prospects of watered-down legislation. Having decided to pursue vouchers in his first session, Lee needs to avoid a high-profile defeat. So his team can be expected to pull out all the stops to ensure something (anything?) passes this year.

One additional challenge for Lee might emerge from a recognition among some of the more calculating lawmakers that they have increased bargaining power to extract the governor’s support for key projects or bills in exchange for their votes on the voucher bill.

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