Updated at 7:58 p.m. on Tuesday, April 2, 2019, with more information.
NASHVILLE — Gov. Bill Lee says he intends to make sure his proposed school voucher program will apply only to students legally in Tennessee.
The Republican made the comments to reporters Tuesday after being asked about provisions requiring parents of applicants for his Education Savings Account program to provide the state with documentation proving legal status.
A list of acceptable documents includes state driver licenses, birth certificates, Social Security numbers, passports, green cards or similar identification.
"It's important that we provide this program, and we're going to make certain that we provide that to legal residents of Tennessee," Lee said.
His comments came a day after a Democratic lawmaker, Rep. G.A. Hardaway of Memphis, told reporters he plans to ask Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery for a formal opinion on whether the state can exclude non-legal students from the education savings account proposal.
Lee is pressing the GOP-led Legislature to approve the education savings account plan. It would allow parents in school districts with at least three lower-performing public schools to take advantage of public dollars to send their children to private and religious K-12 schools.
Hamilton County's school district is one of five statewide that would be impacted. The state's Achievement School District, an earlier experiment to turn around failing traditional public schools, would be impacted by the ESA bill, as well.
But Lee's bill ran into trouble last month in the GOP-led House on several issues. One was raised by the Federation for American Immigration Reform, an anti-immigration organization.
The organization pointed out Tennessee could not refuse to provide money to undocumented students and their parents to attend private schools because of a 1981 U.S. Supreme Court ruling. The issue resulted in a loss of support among some Republican immigration hardliners. In response, the Lee administration added the identification requirements along with several other changes.
The bill's sponsor, Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, has explained the provision as necessary for identifying parents as part of an accountability process complete with audits aimed at ensuring state money is indeed being spent as intended on private school tuition and associated expenses such as uniforms and computers.
"The way I have explained that language in there is we've asked to be accountable to the dollars," Dunn said Tuesday. "And there's no way you can track dollars unless you add certain identification information from the parents. What we're asking for in there is what you have to ask for: We need to know who you are and your address and your Social Security number so we can track the money."
As for whether that information would keep undocumented children out of the program, Dunn said, "that might be a byproduct of it. But if you didn't have identification of the parents, you wouldn't be able to track it. And I know the governor wants to have accountability and know where every dime goes and that it's helping the children. If you didn't have it, you'd have problems."
Speaking earlier, Lee said the bill is designed "to provide opportunities particularly for low- income students in those school districts that have failing schools, to provide opportunity for them to have access to a quality education."
The governor said his administration had constructed a bill "that we believe will do that and will do that legally and will improve the lives of not only those children but will improve the school system of our public schools all across Tennessee."
A day earlier, Hardaway said one of his questions to the attorney general will be "can you exclude individuals who may not be here legally? Can you exclude them from participation in the vouchers program? Federal case law seems to say no you cannot."
In the 1981 Supreme Court decision Plyler v. Doe, the court held in a Texas case that public school systems can't check the immigration status of children and must provide them with an education.
Under Lee's proposal, parents and children who qualify could see an average of $7,300 in state funds to use for private school tuition, books, uniforms and related education expenses.
Locally raised per- student tax dollars would go toward the savings account as well. Money could be used to pay for tuition and related education costs.
Lee expects to spend upwards of $125 million by year 5 of the program. To address other concerns, he has capped the ESA program at 15,000 students. Other provisions would provide affected school districts $25 million annually over a three-year period to offset the loss of students and state dollars. After that, the districts would continue to get $25 million to split among themselves but would have to direct the money toward improving failing schools.
The bill moved through the House Government Operations Committee on Monday and is scheduled for consideration Wednesday in the Senate Education Committee.
Lee also is pushing an expansion of public charter schools. It has faced less opposition.
Contact Andy Sher at email@example.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.