Tennessee Senate passes Lee's school voucher bill, excludes Hamilton County

Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Gov. Bill Lee smiles as he talks about his school voucher plan at the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce on Friday.
Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Gov. Bill Lee smiles as he talks about his school voucher plan at the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce on Friday.

NASHVILLE -- Tennessee senators today approved a scaled-down version of Republican Gov. Bill Lee's controversial school voucher-like "education savings account" bill which now omits Hamilton County schools.

It passed on a 20-13 vote, setting up a potential fight with the House due to major differences between the lower chamber's bill version passed earlier in the week and the Senate's.

As passed by the Senate, Lee's effort to let parents of up to 15,000 students use taxpayer dollars to pay for private schools or home-schooling expenses would only apply to students zoned for low-performing public schools in Davidson and Shelby counties as well as the state-run Achievement School District.

The House version leaves Hamilton County schools in but excludes Knox County under a deal Republican House Speaker Glen Casada cut with a Knoxville GOP representative when the vote stalemated on a 40-minute tie vote.

Voting for the Senate bill today were Finance Committee Chairman Bo Watson, R-Hixson, and Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga. Both had raised concerns about the original legislation.

Parents would receive $7,300 in funding annually under the legislation that Lee and other proponents say is needed to help provide "school choice" options for lower-income families living in districts with schools falling into the state's bottom 10 percent in terms of student performance.

Provisions, however, are tied to families whose incomes are twice the amount needed for a child to participate in the federal free lunch programs. It's about $54,000 for a family of three or $65,000 for a family of four.

Besides the differences over what counties are in the bill, the two chambers' respective bills include a provision Lee introduced to soothe House Republicans' heartburn over the potential participation by undocumented immigrant children.

As a result, the House bill contains many identification requirements for families, which can include a driver's license, birth certificate, passport or Social Security number. Lee and Republicans insist it's not to deter undocumented students but verify their legal status in Tennessee. identity.

But critics, including some Republicans like Gardenhire, have said it effectively seeks to exclude such children.

Under the Senate bill, however, only requires a family submit items such as a paycheck stub or W-2 tax form.

Home-schooled students are allowed under the Senate bill but not the House bill.

Tennessee's fight over the bill has drawn interest from outside the state, the latest evidence of that coming Wednesday when President Donald Trump tweeted that "The Great State of Tennessee is so close to passing School Choice. All of our Nation's children, regardless of background, deserve a shot at achieving the American Dream! Time to get this done, so important!"

By Thursday, The Wall Street Journal's editorial page jumped in, urging Tennessee senators to pass Lee's Tennessee Education Savings Account bill.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow on Twitter @AndySher1.

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