Gov. Bill Lee quietly signed his education savings account plan into law on Friday, setting the course to begin letting some public school students in Memphis and Nashville use taxpayer money to pay toward private school tuition or other education services.
The new Republican governor made his signature education initiative official despite more calls from Democrats asking him to hold off because of “unprecedented controversy” over its passage this spring.
In a letter delivered to Lee on Friday, four lawmakers from the two cities affected cited a news report that FBI agents have begun interviewing lawmakers about whether any improper incentives were offered to pass the bill in the House of Representatives.
“We are asking that this bill not be signed into law until the FBI has completed its investigation,” said the letter from Reps. Joe Towns Jr., G.A. Hardaway, and Barbara Cooper of Memphis and Mike Stewart of Nashville. “Many of us are not satisfied and distrust how the process concluded.”
Chalkbeat has not independently verified that an FBI investigation is underway, and Lee’s press secretary, Laine Arnold, said this week that the governor’s office has not been contacted by the FBI or any law enforcement.
When asked about questions that continue to swirl around the bill’s passage, Arnold characterized them as “rumors” that should not stand in the way of giving parents more education choices for their children, especially in the two cities that are home to dozens of low-performing schools.
“Gov. Lee is a longtime advocate of school choice, and the education savings account bill is a key step in ensuring every student in Tennessee has access to a high-quality education,” Arnold said. “We are proud to see this bill become law and look forward to a future of educational opportunity.”
The bill passed by a comfortable margin in the Senate but barely squeaked by in the House, where Speaker Glen Casada held the vote open for 38 minutes to convince Republican Rep. Jason Zachary of Knoxville to flip his position and break a 49-49 tie.
“It does not give the public confidence that the vote was properly taken,” the lawmakers said in their letter to Lee.
Casada, who has been criticized for his strong-armed tactics, announced earlier this week that he will resign as speaker over a separate scandal that, among other things, involved racist and lewd text messages and other questionable activities by his then-chief of staff, Cade Cothren.
Under Lee’s plan, education savings accounts would be available beginning in 2021 to up to 5,000 students who currently attend public schools in Memphis and Nashville. By 2024, the program would be capped at 15,000 students but could be expanded by a future legislature.
But there are looming questions about its constitutionality and cost to taxpayers. Shelby County Schools and Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools are looking into the possibility of challenging the bill in court for being singled out in the plan, as is the Tennessee Immigrant & Refugee Rights Coalition over one provision that’s intended to exclude undocumented students from participating.
Those groups have begun to have discussions about legal strategies going forward.
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