State Rep. London Lamar told district constituents that she suspects Republican lawmakers will try to expand who can qualify for the new education vouchers that now are limited to low-income. (Photo: Tyrone P. Easley)

Issues related to school vouchers, a new law some consider “voter suppression” and the federal government’s “real ID” statute dominated the agenda during the first Town Hall meeting that London Lamar hosted as the first-term state representative for District 91 on Tuesday.

With Democrats in the minority and Republican Party lawmakers exerting their dominance, there is much reason to be “very concerned” Lamar told attendees at Riverside Baptist Church on Third Street.

The Town Hall follows the completion of the Tennessee General Assembly session, which was the first for Lamar, Tennessee’s youngest state lawmaker. On hand to offer their perspectives were Elizabeth Fiveash, Tennessee’s assistant commissioner of education, and Michael Hogan, director of Driver Services in the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security.

It didn’t take long for the discussion to turn to the school voucher program signed into law by new Gov. Bill Lee and set to take effect in 2021.

“I have quite a few retired teachers in my district who are concerned that the voucher system will take away much needed funding from public schools,” said Lamar. “That is a valid concern, and so should we all be concerned.”

Lee pitched and pushed hard for the voucher program, which would limit vouchers to low-income students as a way of offering school choice. Lamar is wary of some calculated changes during the legislative session that begins in January 2020.

“And as it stands, the vouchers will only be used in Shelby and Davidson Counties, Memphis and Nashville. I believe they are experimenting on our children,” Lamar said. “In January, I believe Republicans plan to expand who can qualify, and expand the use of vouchers all over the state.”

Fiveash laid out objectives for the Department of Education to the benefit of “each and every student.”

“Representative Lamar and I have a good working relationship,” said Fiveash. “We have the common goal of providing opportunities for all our students. Computer science is the way forward. There will be many technology jobs. But when students have not been exposed to math or science very much, then there is very little interest in those fields.

“We want every student to get those opportunities. Career aptitude assessments will help make all of our students college or career-ready.”

“Voter suppression” concerns

Lamar’s concern with voter suppression is linked to another bill passed by the state legislature and signed into law. She said it targets large-scale voter registration drives prevalent in minority communities and has the potential to discourage groups from running voter registration campaigns.

“This bill requires anyone who will be signing up 100 people or more to complete a special training. Also, if any group or organization turns in 100 or more incomplete forms, they will be fined.

“This is why I felt this town hall meeting was necessary,” Lamar said. “We must stay informed and pay close attention to these laws being passed.”

Getting “Real”

This July, new “Real IDs” will be implemented and Hogan gave a presentation crafted to counter misinformation about the new identification system.

“The ‘Real ID’ stems from a 2005 federal law designed to prevent terrorism and fraud,” said Hogan. “It was a mandate following 9-11 because terrorists were able to get IDs, and they were not American citizens.”

The new federal identifications will have a gold circle with a star in the right corner of the drivers’ license to indicate it is “Real ID compliant.” Non-compliant driver licenses and state-issued identification credentials will display the phrase, “NOT FOR FEDERAL IDENTIFICATION” on the front, beginning this summer.

Non-compliant individuals will still be able to drive, vote, and receive federal benefits, such as social security and veterans’ benefits. However, there will be restrictions on boarding an American flight after October, 2020, or entering a federal facility that requires ID, such as a nuclear plant or military base.