Recent amendments to Gov. Bill Lee’s Education Savings Account program hasn’t garnered any support from local school systems.
The amendment, proposed by Rep. Matthew Hill, R-Jonesborough, would include a grant program for failing schools in the counties outside Tennessee’s four largest – Shelby, Davidson, Knox and Hamilton.
Hill said the proposed $25 million would fund grants for Tennessee’s other 91 counties. The house finance committee passed the amendment in a 13-8 vote Wednesday night before passing the amended bill.
Hill said the money allocated for such grants could be used for a variety of purposes like raises and capital project funds.
If passed, the bill would commit $75 million over the next three years to a special “education savings” account. From there, the money will be divided into $7,300 parcels for students in “failing” schools in Tennessee’s four largest counties. Those students could use yearly vouchers to attend a different school, including private institutions.
Per the amendment, the bill caps out at 7,500 students who could participate in the first year, but expands to 30,000 eligible students by the fourth year.
In a statement, Hill said part of the negotiations of the amendment would safeguard Johnson City and Washington County schools from any negative consequences of the bill by confining the ESA pilot program to Tennessee’s four largest counties.
“After weeks of conversations with our teachers, superintendents, school board members, and parents, it was clear we needed legislation that protected our local schools from potential negative financial impacts related to the proposed Education Savings Account legislation,” Hill said in the statement. “I appreciate Governor Lee and Speaker Casada taking into consideration the concerns of my community and all rural Tennessee communities by crafting a bill that best addresses the needs of students at our failing schools, while also protecting our local school children and their teachers.”
Officials still opposed
Public school officials oppose the bill because of the possibility it could “funnel” public tax dollars into private institutions.
Washington County Director of Schools Bill Flanary said even though Hill’s amendment made the bill more “palatable,” he still doesn’t support the Education Savings Account plan fully.
“I have no problem with how a parent seeks to have their child educated – that’s a right as an American. I just have a problem using public dollars outside the public domain,” he said.
Johnson City Public Schools passed a resolution earlier this month opposing the ESA bill, calling for legislators to vote against the legislation.
Communications Specialist Debra Bentley said the Johnson City Board of Education opposes the legislation for the same reasons Flanary gave – the doors it would open to put public funds in private institutions.
“The board is concerned about accountability,” Bentley said. “Private schools do not have the same accountability as public schools.
“The students can go to these private schools and they don’t have to be taught the state standards. The private schools can choose any curriculum they want to teach and call it 4th-grade math or 7th-grade science.”
The bill will be considered by the state house calendar and rules committee on Tuesday.