NASHVILLE — Republican Gov. Bill Lee is downplaying concerns voiced by Democrats as well as some members of his own party over his proposal to create a $25 million education savings account program that would enable some parents in failing public schools to pay for private education.
"It's a bold plan, but I believe we're ready for a bold plan," Lee told reporters Tuesday after rolling out the proposal a day earlier in his first State of the State address. "We're in the bottom half of states in our educational outcomes, and I think Tennessee students deserve better."
The proposal would affect just five of Tennessee's 137 local school systems — Hamilton, Davidson, Knox, Madison and Shelby county districts — as well as the state's Achievement School District comprised entirely of failing schools.
While some details of the proposal, which is based on similar voucher-style programs in Arizona and four other states, are known, many aspects won't be revealed until they are fleshed out in actual legislation expected to come as early as next week.
Lee is proposing to begin small with a first-year cap of 5,000 students whose parents are impoverished. They would be eligible for $7,300 each to devote toward private K-12 school providers. That could increase by up to 2,500 more students a year over the three-year period.
In Arizona, there were controversies over parents using their education savings account debit cards for non-education-related expenses. There have been other concerns as well over the quality of education.
Lee vowed "there'll be strong accountability around this program. The use of the dollars will be determined by the Department of Education to ensure those dollars are spent only on educational resources."
And private schools themselves "will be held accountable because every student who uses funds through this education savings account will be required to take an accountability test that other students across the state will take as well," the governor vowed.
House Minority Leader Karen Camper, D-Memphis, sharply criticized the plan saying "time and time again in other states we have seen that students who take vouchers have not performed at the level of their peers.
"We must continue to fight against this attack on our public school system," added Camper, whose Shelby County school system is impacted.
But House Majority Leader Glen Casada, R-Franklin, told reporters "let's be real clear. We trust the parents of this state know best for their children. Too many times we focus on the bureaucracy.
"Let's focus on the children, what's best for them," said Casada, whose own Williamson County school system isn't affected. "Let's get them out of failing schools."
Citing the support of Casada and Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, as well as legislative leadership, Lee said, "a lot of conversations we've had with lawmakers have been encouraging."
Rep. Robin Smith, R-Hixson, said she believes "that the [education savings accounts] are very needed, something I think the parents can make good decisions on how best to use" them.
Moreover, Smith said, Lee is using a "safe" approach to the proposal "instead of going directly into a full voucher program. We want to make sure how monies are spent, make sure we anticipate maybe the pitfalls that could occur. But yet give parents some opportunity" when their children are "trapped in failing schools."
"There's nothing sudden about this," Smith said, noting that "there have been schools in the Hamilton County system and others, schools have been warned and they've been told they've been failing for over a decade."
But Rep. Yusuf Hakeem, D-Chattanooga, said the governor's proposal "gives me pause and concern that it takes away from the public education system. Again, we have a vulnerable population, those people who have not been able to go to private schools and so forth. And to take away funds I think harms their chances of being the best they can be."
While Lee is increasing the BEP funding formula, Hakeem said $25 million won't be going there. Nor is another $12 million proposed for public charter schools.
"If we're going to invest in public education, let's do it," Hakeem said. "We say we need people for the workforce, and we need to make that investment if we're going to get there."
House Finance Committee Vice Chairman Patsy Hazlewood, R-Signal Mountain, listened to considerable back and forth over the education savings account program as top Lee administration officials discussed it before the House Finance Committee during their overall recommended $38.55 billion budget presentation.
Hazlewood said she's still "waiting to see the details" on the savings account proposal.
For example, Hazlewood said, she thought a GOP colleague raised a "critical point" by asking whether local systems would adequately be "held harmless" by loss of education dollars as the money follows departing students.
Lee is recommending affected schools continue to be compensated through the formula over a three-year period. But the issue raised in committee is what happens in Year 4.
"I think, as with most things, the devil's in the details," Hazlewood said. "Certainly, if I lived in a school zone where my child had to go and it was a failing school, I would want to have options. I just think we have to be careful how we implement that. Again just to not exacerbate the problem we have already when schools don't have enough resources."
Lee has emphasized that his proposed fiscal year 2019-2020 budget also provides $71 million for public school educator salary increases of 2.5 percent as well as $46.23 million to provide full cost adjustments to the state's Basic Education Program funding formula for public schools.
And he's also proposing another $5 million for the lowest performing schools.
In recent years, repeated efforts by voucher proponents have failed in the Republican- controlled General Assembly, where former House Speaker Beth Harwell, a Nashville Republican, wasn't keen on vouchers. And a number of her GOP colleagues agreed with rural Republicans, fearing programs proposed as being limited would eventually be extended into their districts.
But there's been a massive turnover of members as a result of the 2018 elections.
Still, while House Budget Subcommittee Chairman Andy Holt, R-Dresden, a longtime voucher supporter, applauded Lee's education savings account proposal, he told Lee's finance commissioner, Stewart McWhorter, "I know that's a heavy lift."
"I know there's concern out there," Holt said, later adding, "I hope to see it through."
Contact Andy Sher at email@example.com or 615-255-0550. Follow on Twitter @AndySher1.