Senate passes ESA “voucher-style” bill in 19-14 vote

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Public education advocates rally against a voucher-style proposal in Tennessee at the state Capitol in Nashville on Monday, April 22, 2019. The legislation narrowly passed the state House on Tuesday. (AP Photo/Jonathan Mattise)

TRI-CITIES, TENN. (WJHL)- A controversial bill that would implement Education Savings Accounts for some Tennessee students passed the third consideration in the Senate on Wednesday.

The bill passed a conference committee* Wednesday morning in a 30-minute session before heading to the Senate for its third consideration. After a lengthy discussion on the bill, Senators moved the bill forward in a 19-14 vote. 

The bill came out of Wednesday’s conference committee meeting with some changes, including changes to how Rep. Matthew Hill’s amendment will earmark funds for rural areas.

Hill’s amendment would guarantee funds for priority schools in rural areas, but after the meeting, the bill emerged with differences in how the funds will be earmarked. Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, proposed that the changes would bring more money to rural districts than the original proposition included in the House Bill. 

Hill’s House amendment promised 25 percent of the $25 million allocated for the first year of the ESA program for rural districts not participating in the program. 

Kelsey instead explained that the new bill would use leftover funds from year one. Instead of rolling them over to the next year, he said, allocating them to use for priority schools in rural areas would be a “win-win” situation. 

“I’ve studied these programs and their implementation in several states over the past 13 years, and I can assure you we will not reach the caps in the beginning of this program,” Kelsey said during the conference committee meeting. “It is very difficult to get the word out when a new significant piece of legislation like this passes.”

Hill agreed that the change to the amendment would yield more money for rural schools in the long run. 
“There’s a lot of schools in this state are good schools,” he said. “A couple of them have some challenges, the grant money is meant to do just that.”

During the discussion on the Senate floor, some senators remained skeptical that the bill would prove to be fiscally conservative or effective, some deeming it “fatally flawed.” Others remained skeptical that there would be enough funds left over from the first year of the program to fund grants for rural schools. 

Others, like Sen. Frank Niceley, R-Strawberry Plains, questioned where education savings accounts left students in priority schools that don’t qualify for the program.

“How does that help people that are still stuck (in a failing school)?” he asked senators. “This doesn’t fix the problem. It just doesn’t.”

Hill said he had some concerns with the bill at first, but after passing the amendment that would shield Washington County and Johnson City from any negative financial implications of the bill, he added his support to the program. 

“Memphis and Nashville comprised over 90 of the failing schools in Tennessee, that’s where the resources need to be targeted,” he said after the Senate vote.

The bill passed by the conference committee establishes that the program is a three-year pilot program, and includes provisions that the state Office of Research and Education Accountability will conduct a review of its effectiveness after the first three years. 

Some senators expressed discomfort that the bill didn’t have staunch brakes and some argued that once started, the program would be difficult to stop. 

“This is an entitlement, not a pilot, there’s no way to shut it down,” Niceley argued. “The last entitlement was TennCare and now it’s the biggest item on our budget.”

The bill would need to pass third consideration in the House before being signed by both speakers. After that, it will head to Gov. Bill Lee’s desk for approval.

*Note: A conference committee is formed to splice together companion bills from the House and the Senate. Bills from each legislative body can carry different language and amendments, so the conference committee’s job is to produce one bill before it goes for its third reading in the House and Senate. 

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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