Tennessee House narrowly passes controversial voucher bill

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Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee’s controversial “education savings account” bill narrowly passed on the House floor Tuesday after an initial vote ended in a tie. 

The tie was broken by a move that hasn’t been seen in nearly two decades, according to observers. House members were allowed to change their votes and Republican Rep. Jason Zachary did just that to push the bill through. 

Rep. Matthew Hill was one of six local lawmakers to support the bill, despite mounting pushback from public school leaders in their districts. 

“I appreciate my teachers. Some of them have been a little less than appreciative of me over the last few days and that’s ok,” said Hill. 

That’s because the bill he supports could shift more than $110 million from the state’s Basic Education Program over a five year period to fund an education savings account, according to the most recent financial analysis.

Johnson City Schools Director of Communications Dr. Debra Bentley doubled down on the school board’s opposition to the idea Tuesday, as did Washington County, Tennessee’s Director of Schools Dr. Bill Flanary. 

“Rep. Hill has his opinion and I think our Board of Education’s opinion is very different. That any money going to private schools will negatively impact public education,” said Bentley. 

“This is still public dollars being funneled towards private institutions that do not have to avail themselves of the same standards of public schools,” said Flanary. 

Under the current House bill, up to 15 thousand students in a maximum of four underperforming counties in Tennessee would be able to use vouchers to pay for private school education. 

None of those counties are in Northeast Tennessee. 

Each student’s family would receive about $7.3 thousand to pay for tuition and other education-related expenses. 

Lawmakers in support of the bill argued Tuesday that these funds are critical to giving lower-income parents a choice for their students in “failing” school districts. 

Rep. Hill said many critics are being swayed by misinformation. “Facts are a stubborn thing ladies and gentleman,” said Hill. “Let’s no longer be disingenuous about the numbers. Please, K-12 education has not been cut, has never been cut and is continuing to grow in state appropriations.” 

Hill said the bill ensures that the education savings account cannot be used by students in Tennessee’s 91 counties not explicitly outlined as underperforming. 

He said those localities not included in the “pilot program” will also benefit from a $25 million dollar grant program to fund things like renovations and raises for public school staff, as a result of an amendment he proposed. 

“This legislation protects you. This legislation ensures that you do not have to have any financial liability,” said Hill.

Bentley and Flanary aren’t convinced. 

“No matter where the money goes I know where the money comes from and that’s from public taxpayers,” said Flanary. 

“All school districts will ultimately be impacted by taxpayer’s dollars going towards private schools and not coming to public schools,” said Bentley. 

This is not the last step for this controversial bill. 

The Senate version of the legislation also survived a vote in the Senate Finance, Ways and Means Committee Tuesday. The full Senate is expected to vote on it Thursday. 

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