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Number of School Choice Bills Advance in Tennessee

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A number of bills in Tennessee expanding the education savings account (ESA) program are making their way through the state legislature, setting up an expansion of school choice options in the Volunteer State.

The bills have not yet made their way to passage in the House to be sent to Republican Governor Bill Lee, a strong school choice advocate, but they have made their way to House committees after passage in the state senate.

On Monday, the state senate approved a bill to expand eligibility for students to receive vouchers used to enroll in private or charter schools, passing along party lines and now awaiting action in House committees, while they passed a bill to expand to another county earlier this month.

They are expected to pass and be sent to Lee to sign into law in the Republican supermajority in the House of the Tennessee General Assembly.

The Legislation

One of the pieces of legislation sailing through the legislature would expand eligibility for the ESA program to students who attended private or home schools during the last three school years. Current laws only allow students moving directly from a public to private school to be eligible for the program.

State Sen. Jon Lundberg said prior to the Senate vote the expansion is a way to give students who may have been enrolled in a public, home, or charter school the opportunity to reapply after the legislation was tied up in court until last year.

Some students were denied because they weren’t moving directly from a public to private school because they switched schools while the legislation was moving through the courts.

Tennessee passed its school choice pilot program in 2019, but it was stalled in court until last summer, when the state’s Supreme Court gave it the green light.

The other legislation would expand the current voucher program’s eligibility from Shelby County (Memphis) and Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools to Hamilton County Schools, which includes the city of Chattanooga.

Tennessee Governor Bill Lee
Tennessee Governor Bill Lee attends The National Museum Of African American Music Grand Opening at The National Museum of African American Music in Nashville, Tenn., on Jan. 18, 2021. (Jason Kempin/Getty Images)

State Sen. Todd Gardenhire, a Chattanooga Republican, said the addition of Hamilton County is needed because of years of failure to improve schools in his home county. The bill passed the Senate on party lines and was debated in the House Education committee this week.

A House co-sponsor of the bill, state Rep. Mark White (R), told members of an education committee the bill is being sponsored by him because of Gardenhire’s argument the district has had five years to improve schools while failing to do so.

Representatives for the American Federation of Children and from the Tennessee Department of Education testified in favor of the bill to the committee.

State Rep. Gino Bulso, a Republican, asked if the ESA program harms students who attend public schools. The American Federation of Children Representative, John Patton, said there was no evidence to suggest that. Bulso encouraged other members of the House to support the bill since it has support locally and from the state department of education and governor’s office.

State Rep. Todd Warner, also a Republican, was a bit more skeptical about the harm it could do to public schools, but voted to advance the bill through the committee nonetheless.

Warner said he supports school choice but “struggles when we take money out of our public school systems.” He said the state has “reworked” the education funding formula here and struggles when legislators “continue to take money out of our public school system.”

Republican state Rep. Bryan Richey said constituents across backgrounds have shared with his office that they want the choice to make the decision they believe is best for their children, adding it is “taxpayer dollars” and not “public school dollars” that go toward the ESA program.

He added he wanted to expand the ESA program to all 95 counties instead of legislators “cherry-picking” the large Metropolitan area school districts. There was no opposition voiced in the committee.

The bill to expand the program to Hamilton County is up for debate in the Education Administration committee next week in the House while the bill to expand eligibility to more students based on criteria is scheduled for the K-12 Education committee next week as well.

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