Key difference in dueling voucher proposals in Tennessee revolves around testing private school students

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Governor Bill Lee and Senate leaders revealed opposing proposals on Wednesday to implement universal school vouchers in Tennessee. A third version from House leaders is anticipated later this week.

One notable difference lies in the testing accountability among multiple amendments filed as part of a Republican effort to eventually allow all Tennessee families the choice to utilize public funds to send their children to private schools. The Senate proposal also includes open enrollment across public school systems.

Lee’s seven-page proposal does not mandate participating students to undergo yearly tests to assess whether the Education Freedom Scholarship Act yields improved academic results. The governor argues that parental choice serves as the ultimate form of accountability.

The Senate’s 17-page plan necessitates recipients in grades three through 11 to complete norm-referenced tests approved by the State Board of Education. Approved tests may include the statewide assessments like those in the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program (TCAP) taken by public school students.

Required assessments encompass a third-grade English language arts test and an eighth-grade math test, as these grades mark pivotal learning stages for these skills. Additionally, eleventh-grade recipients must undertake the ACT, SAT, or a similar exam to assess their readiness for post-high school education.

“The testing aspect is crucial,” asserted Senate Education Committee Chairman Jon Lundberg. “We are duty-bound to inform Tennesseans about the efficacy of this measure.”

These developments demonstrate that, notwithstanding a GOP supermajority, the Tennessee Capitol is divided on key facets of the most significant education initiative during Lee’s administration, even before public legislative discussions commence. Lundberg’s committee is slated to address the issue next week.

Lee aims to commence with up to 20,000 students statewide this autumn and subsequently expand the program to encompass all K-12 students who can utilize a $7,075 annual voucher, irrespective of family income. Although his prior Education Savings Account law targeted students from low-income families in underperforming schools in Memphis and Nashville, it remains underutilized, even with the addition of Hamilton County last fall.

The anticipated costs are poised to pose a significant challenge for Lee’s voucher initiative in a state known for its fiscal conservatism.

Tennessee’s state government faces an approximate $378 million budget shortfall in the first six months of the current fiscal year, as per a revenue report released recently.

Yet, Lee’s proposed $52.6 billion budget for the upcoming fiscal year allocates $144 million annually for vouchers and $200 million for the expansion of state parks and natural reserves, alongside substantial tax reductions for corporate businesses.

During a local town hall event, Republican Representative Bryan Richey from Maryville expressed his support for statewide vouchers but hinted at voting against this year’s proposal due to fiscal concerns and the absence of accountability measures.

The Daily Times reported that Richey likened the legislative process to baking a cake and urged constituents to engage early with lawmakers during committee reviews.

Richey illustrated, “Once the ingredients are mixed in the batter, we can’t retract the eggs or oil.”

Lee’s proposal closely resembles a draft legislation erroneously submitted in the Senate late last January, then withdrawn shortly afterward. The funding for vouchers would stem from a separate scholarship fund, distinct from the existing model for public school funding.

RELATED: Tennessee’s universal school voucher bill draft drops. Here are 5 things that stand out.

Conversely, the Senate’s version aligns the funding with Tennessee’s new public school model, termed Tennessee Investment in Student Achievement (TISA), permitting students to enroll in any school district, even if they are not within the designated zone.

Lundberg emphasized the importance of open enrollment by stating, “We advocate for unrestricted transfers to any location. The funding should be portable along with the student.”

House leaders have been collaborating with key stakeholders for weeks to gather feedback for a comprehensive amendment anticipated to be released on Thursday.

JC Bowman, executive director of Professional Educators of Tennessee, who actively participated in these discussions, remarked, “I am eager to review the House proposal, but notable discrepancies exist. If the goal is to push this initiative, it must be executed with precision.”

Expressing skepticism, Bowman, a critic of vouchers, commented, “I am uncertain if these versions can be harmonized this year. If this endeavor is inevitable, thorough deliberation is vital.”

Conversely, a statement from the governor’s office applauded the diverse proposals as indicative of robust engagement in the legislative process.

The statement underscored that “The Education Freedom Scholarship Act is a framework emphasizing parental choice in determining their child’s educational path, regardless of economic status or residential area.”

The bills are backed by Senate and House majority leaders Jack Johnson from Franklin and William Lamberth from Portland. Follow the progression of the legislation on the General Assembly’s official website.

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