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Tennessee Lawmakers Negotiate New Voucher Bill

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Tennessee lawmakers negotiating a Republican-led effort to divert more tax money to private education reached a compromise Wednesday on a plan to give debit cards to participating families worth up to $7,300 in state education funds each year.

The proposal is the latest evolution of an ongoing battle to push a school voucher bill during this year's legislative session. After various forms popped up in the General Assembly, a 10-member conference committee met to hash out the final details on the education savings account proposal.

But even those lawmakers only got a summary of the compromise and weren't allowed to pause to read the 25-page bill before voting to advance it, mostly along party lines, despite a request from a Democratic member to do so.

Shortly thereafter, House members approved it with a 53-46 vote. The bill must now clear the Senate before it can head to the governor's desk, where it would certainly become law because Republican Gov. Bill Lee first pitched the idea during his first annual address to lawmakers in January.

According to the bill — which was distributed after the meeting — the main framework of the program would remain the same: families in certain schools districts could receive up to $7,300 in state funds each year to spend on private tuition and other approved expenses, such as transportation or curriculum costs. The money would be deposited in a family ESA, to be withdrawn using a debit card. It would be up to the education department to do audits to make sure the money goes to qualified expenses.

However, the latest version only allows the program to take place in Shelby and Davidson counties, caps the number of students who can take advantage of it to 15,000 over five years and excludes homeschool students. Previous iterations had included more areas and more students, including families who homeschool. It had also had tougher testing requirements. The latest version only requires participating students to complete state standardized testing in math and English language arts, but not science and social studies.

Tennessee's voucher plan has caught the eye of President Donald Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who both tweeted their support, but despite the national attention it's been an uphill battle to secure enough support inside the GOP-controlled Statehouse all session.

That's because many lawmakers, particularly in rural areas, feared that participating local public schools would receive fewer public dollars if involved in the voucher program.

Currently, schools get a certain amount of funding based on student enrollment. The concern had been that under the education savings account program, students who leave public school districts would take that funding with them. The compromise unveiled Wednesday allows participating public schools to continue to be fully reimbursed for losing students. Lawmakers say they will budget $25 million a year to fund the program starting in 2021. Supporters said Wednesday that they don't expect 15,000 students to participate, and any leftover funds will be funneled to a separate account to fund grants for certain non-participating schools.

Families interested in participating must provide federal income tax returns or provide proof they can qualify for federal assistance. Previous versions had raised legal concerns because it sought to require birth certificates or driver's licenses as a way to prohibit families living in the United States illegally from receiving ESA money, but that provision had been removed as of Wednesday.

Critics of the program, which include education advocates and Democratic lawmakers, have argued ESAs will not help improve the state's failing schools. Others have raised concerns that by facilitating the departure of more students, the bill could encourage more wealthier white families to flee troubled school districts as well.

"We're about to move the clock back. We will see worse segregation in the coming years than you have seen in your lifetime. Why? Because it will be state funded," said Democratic Rep. G.A. Hardaway, of Memphis.

Nationally, five states allow some sort of education savings accounts: Arizona, Florida, Mississippi, Tennessee and Nevada. Nevada's Supreme Court struck down its state law.

In Tennessee, the existing program is fairly limited. Parents of students with certain disabilities can withdraw their children from public school and then receive up to $6,000 to pay for private educational services.

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