Tennessee House passes education voucher bill for the first time, Senate vote to come

In a historic vote, an education voucher bill narrowly passed for the first time in Tennessee’s House of Representatives as the state inched closer to letting some families use taxpayer money to pay for private education services.

Representatives voted 50-48 on Tuesday for Gov. Bill Lee’s education savings account proposal after three hours of debate, dramatic last-minute dealmaking, and multiple failed attempts to remove several districts from the pilot program.

Under the House bill, the program would start in 2021 with up to 5,000 students from public school districts in the state’s four largest cities: Memphis, Nashville, Chattanooga and Knoxville. However, moments after the vote, House Speaker Glen Casada told reporters that Knox County eventually will be removed from the plan under an agreement with Rep. Jason Zachary of Knoxville, who cast the deciding vote.

Meanwhile, a revised bill that would limit the program to students in school systems in Memphis and Nashville squeaked out of the Senate committee where the bill stalled last week.

All eyes now turn to the full Senate, where Lt. Gov. Randy McNally has said he believes the votes are in place for passage. That vote, expected this week, would send the measure to a conference committee to work out significant differences between the House and Senate versions.

The governor tweeted his thanks to House leaders and has scheduled a press conference on Thursday to review this week’s legislative work.

“Every student in TN deserves access to a high-quality education, and with today’s House vote, we’re one big step closer to giving parents and students needed choice in their education,” Lee said.

The House vote was unprecedented. Voucher legislation had never before reached the floor of that chamber for a full vote, having been pulled from the agenda at the last minute in 2016 when the bill’s sponsor realized that he didn’t have enough support.

The outcome was different this time, however, with the same Republican sponsor, Rep. Bill Dunn of Knoxville, and a new Republican governor who campaigned to give families more education choices for their children.

“The heart and soul of the bill is very simple. Parents will pursue the best educational experiences for their child,” said Dunn, who has shepherded it through the chamber that has been most resistant to vouchers for almost a decade.

Debate in the House was feisty and dramatic, with deliberations pausing at one point when the head count stood at 49-49. Rep. Debra Moody, the Covington Republican who had planned to vote yes, was absent due to her mother’s death.

House leaders eventually convinced Zachary to vote for the governor’s plan, and the Knoxville Republican said later that Casada had assured him that Knox County would be “held physically harmless regarding anything with ESAs.”

In debate on the floor, members in Tennessee’s other large cities vented about restricting to urban districts a program that most lawmakers don’t want in their own backyards.

“If it’s not good enough for your children or your child, it’s not good enough for mine either,” said Rep. Antonio Parkinson, a Memphis Democrat.

Rep. Matthew Hill, a Republican from Jonesborough, said the urban districts were targeted “quite frankly because 99 percent of our failing schools in this state are encompassed in those four counties.”

And Rep. Michael G. Curcio, a Republican from Dickson, characterized each of the state’s lowest-performing schools as a “prison” and “pit” from which children needed to be saved.

Elsewhere at the state Capitol, officials representing Shelby and Davidson counties told members of the Senate Finance Committee that launching the new program would force double-digit increases in local property tax rates.

The votes came as new research on a closely watched school voucher program in Louisiana offered some grim results. The study, by researchers at the University of Arkansas, found that math scores went down for Louisiana students who used a voucher to attend a private school — and that those scores didn’t bounce back, even years later.

This developing story will be updated.

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