NASHVILLE — Gov. Bill Lee on Tuesday met quietly with local public school system leaders from Hamilton County and four other districts who fear the impact of the Republican's proposed education savings account proposal.
It comes as the Republican governor faces new-found discomfort among fellow Republicans on the Senate Finance Committee, while in the House, several rural Republicans later in the day filed amendments to the voucher-like bill that could generate yet more stomach churning among some fellow House and Senate Republicans.
Earlier in the day, Hamilton County School Board members Tiffanie Robinson and Jenny Hill were among five local members who joined with Superintendent Bryan Johnson to meet with Lee at the state Capitol at the governor's invitation.
"He made a point the bill is constantly changing, certainly wanted to point out that likely there will be multiple changes before it was finalized but would not provide more specifics on that," Robinson said.
The meeting was also attended by superintendents and board members from the Metro Nashville, Knox, Shelby and Jackson-Madison school districts.
Spokespeople for Lee did not respond Tuesday evening to a Times Free Press email request for more information about the meeting.
All the districts would be impacted by Lee's legislation. Depending on the respective House and Senate versions, the bill would allow parents of between 15,000 and 30,000 students to use public tax dollars to send their children to private schools or to cover home schooling expenses.
Parents, depending on income, would be eligible for a state-issued education savings account which, unlike a traditional voucher, would be provided directly to the parents with what the administration says are safeguards and auditing to deter fraud or abuse.
Districts are worried about the program generally and also the loss of state and local tax dollars. The average education savings account would be about $7,300 annually.
Another concern among districts and some lawmakers is whether student performance for those attending private schools would be gauged on different tests than the state's TNReady exams administered to public school students.
Lee's original bill said the private school students using the education savings accounts would have to take TNReady exams for math and English. That's still in the House bill. But the Senate version now says the new private school students could take any norm-referenced tests used by the private school.
"We had an interesting conversation about how to compare apples and oranges," said Hill, noting it was a Shelby County board member who raised the issue with the governor about the apparent disparity in testing by which public schools are judged.
Hill said the Shelby County school district board member "wanted to know what she could share with other parents like her in Shelby County," noting the woman had a child of her own in a priority school where students fall into the bottom 5 percent.
"And he said very quickly that the bill will include TNReady testing," added Hill, who previously testified against the education savings account bill in the House Education Committee. "I thought it [TNReady] had come out. So we would be, we certainly hope he wouldn't sign anything that wouldn't include the full battery of TNReady tests."
The math and English tests are among a total of five areas covered in the TNReady testing.
Lee has proposed scaling up the education savings account program with $25 million a year over a five-year period from Tennessee's Basic Education Program funding formula, creating a $125 million pool by Year 5.
To offset losses for local systems, Lee's original bill and the Senate version would give the collective systems $25 million annually from the state general fund over a three-year period. That's to allow them time to absorb the losses of departing students.
After that, the money goes away. But the public systems would then get $25 million for making improvements to priority schools in the bottom 5 percent.
Critics say that unlike the BEP formula, the money would depend on the vagaries of the state budgeting process.
And when the Lee administration on Tuesday unveiled its major amendment to his proposed budget, the first year of funding was suddenly gone.
The governor is already encountering problems with Senate Finance Republicans, with Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, a long-time voucher proponent, saying he won't support the bill because of Lee's efforts to exclude undocumented immigrant children, which critics say is illegal under the law.
Gardenhire has other concerns too. And so does Senate Finance Committee Chairman Bo Watson, R-Hixson, who is concerned about the finances of the proposal. Others on the 11-member committee, including Sen. Joey Hensley, R-Hohenwald, who voted against the bill in the Education Committee, and Sen. Richard Briggs, R-Knoxville, have concerns.
The two Democrats on the committee are against the bill, too. Passing the bill through committee requires six yes votes.
Contact Andy Sher at firstname.lastname@example.org or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.