Governor’s private school voucher bill advances

Despite a wide variety of concerns and scant details, lawmakers voted to advance Gov. Bill Lee’s school voucher bill to the full House Education Committee for consideration.

House Bill 939, Lee’s proposal to provide tax dollars directly to parents on a debit card called an education savings account, is sponsored by Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, District 16.

The measure was introduced as an amendment on March 19 to the House Curriculum, Testing & Innovation Subcommittee, where it passed on a 5-2 vote. The bill will be heard next by the House Education Committee.

As introduced, the Education Savings Account voucher program would begin enrolling a maximum of 5,000 students for the 2021-2022 school year from local school districts that have at least three under-performing schools. To start, that limits participation to Davidson, Shelby, Knox, Hamilton and Madison counties. If enrollment targets were met, the program would triple in size by year five.

Though Lee has been selling the education voucher as a program to help low-income families in struggling schools, the bill does not restrict participation to families in under-achieving schools and the family income eligibility is much higher that expected—nearly a six-figure income for a family of four.

The bill dedicates very little language to measuring student achievement, mechanisms to hold voucher-receiving institutions accountable and provides only one paragraph promising there will be a fraud detection program.

How they voted:
House Curriculum, Testing & Innovation Subcommittee approved HB 939 on a voice vote. Members of the committee:
Rep. Debra Moody, R-Covington, District 81
Rep. Charlie Baum, R-Murfreesboro, District 37
Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, District 16
Rep. Mark White, R-Memphis, District 83
Rep. John DeBerry, D-Memphis, District 90

Representatives who asked be recorded as voting No:
Rep. Tom Leatherwood, R-Arlington, District 99
Rep. Vincent Dixie, D-Nashville, District 54