About a dozen teachers and representatives from the local teachers' union gathered outside the Hamilton County Department of Education tonight to speak out against Gov. Bill Lee's controversial Tennessee school voucher proposal.
The seemingly ever-changing bill passed The Tennessee House Finance Committee Wednesday and is due in front of the full House next Tuesday.
In the original bill, Lee proposed $25 million toward education savings accounts that would allow students from district's with three or more schools falling into the bottom 10 percent across the state to pay for education related-costs for private schools, homeschooling or other alternatives.
Jeanette Omarkhail, president of the Hamilton County Education Association, said the bill was presented as a means for low-income families to have a way out of failing schools, but in reality, that's not what it will do.
"This is not what the bill does," Omarkhail said. "They are only obligated to 'strive to ensure that lower income families are notified of the program and of the eligibility requirements to participate. ...WE are here to state unequivocally [that] we are against ESAs and vouchers."
According to estimates from the Tennessee County Services Association, Hamilton County stands to lose between $2.74 million and $16.39 million annually under the state Basic Education Program formula.
Bailey Payne, a Hamilton County teacher, said anytime public education could lose funding "it's a hard pill to swallow."
She and some of her colleagues held signs that read "Fund Our Schools" and "The death of public education" prior a Hamilton County school board meeting Thursday night.
On Tuesday, several school board members and Superintendent Bryan Johnson met with Lee in Nashville alongside other local school district leaders.
District 6 school board member Jenny Hill has been particularly outspoken against the bill.
"The way that this new voucher bill is set to work is there are not requirements for a student to live in Hamilton County for a set amount of time or attend a Hamilton County school to take advantage of the program," Hill said at a board work session Monday.
District 6 county commissioner David Sharpe also joined alongside teachers, HCEA and TEA representatives at the school board.
"Although I am a Democrat, I still think we should spend our money responsibly," Sharpe said. "For 10 years, our local delegation has been unwilling to fund public education adequately."
Yet, Hamilton County Schools has been making steady progress over the past two years under Johnson's leadership, Sharpe says. He worries the potential funding lost because of students leaving local schools and taking advantage of the voucher program would be detrimental to that progress.
"I am against anything that could potentially stifle that progress," Sharpe said.
Several of the educators present also said they felt that their voices weren't being heard. The Tennessee Education Association plans to hold a march on Monday, April 22 in Nashville before the bill is heard in front of the full Tennessee House and the Senate Finance Committee on Tuesday.
This is a developing story. Check back with the Times Free Press for updates.