Cooper: Educational savings account proposal needs compromise

Cooper: Educational savings account proposal needs compromise

April 16th, 2019 by Clint Cooper in Opinion Free Press

Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, center, has said he won't support Gov. Bill Lee's bold educational savings account proposal in the Senate Finance Committee meeting today.

Photo by Erin O. Smith

We would like to believe there is still time for compromise on Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee's bold educational savings account proposal.

The new governor wants legislation, where previous voucher bills had failed, that would give children in districts with low-performing schools an amount of money that would allow them to attend a private school or to use the money in other ways that could enhance their education.

The proposal only applies to school districts in Hamilton, Knox, Davidson, Shelby and Madison counties, and the state-run Achievement School District, where the lowest performing schools reside.

But state Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, has said he won't vote for the bill in the Senate Finance Committee today.

If a senator from one of the few counties affected by the proposal doesn't support it, and the other Chattanooga senator (Bo Watson) has expressed doubts about it, the legislation could have trouble finding wider support in the full chamber.

If the proposal ultimately fails, many children in low-performing schools will go another year without an option for a better education.

Though time is drawing short for the session, we hope something can be worked out between the Lee administration and the legislature.

Gardenhire's problems with the bill are these: He believes it should not exclude illegal immigrants, he and other local legislators recently stuck their neck out to keep some Hamilton County schools from being added to the Achievement School District (and thus don't want to be falsely perceived as being against public schools), and he was not consulted by the administration on how such an educational savings account bill should be structured.

Our objections are these: We believe the educational savings accounts, at least for the early years of the program, only should be used to allow the students to go from public to private schools. In doing so, we believe the money should be sent to the schools and not the parents. And we believe the proposal should not apply to students in the district whose parents meet the income qualification but who are not in the lowest-performing schools.

In other words, we believe the proposal should be very limited at the outset — perhaps 5,000, rather than the 15,000 and 30,000 student caps suggested in the House and Senate versions of the bill, respectively. Even if it is a success, and we hope it would be, the caps then could be enlarged.

Gardenhire, several years ago, sponsored a bill that would allow children of illegal immigrants — children born in the U.S. and who are thus citizens — to pay in-state tuition at Tennessee public colleges. We endorsed that bill as we did another one he sponsored that would allow illegal immigrant children not born in the U.S. to pay in-state tuition at Tennessee public colleges. Our thinking was that since those students had to be established residents, graduates of state high schools and were going to pay tuition like everyone else, why shouldn't they get the in-state rate? That bill, though, has failed several times.

We understand that Gardenhire and other Hamilton County legislators went to bat to keep some Hamilton County schools out of the Achievement School District, but we don't believe that's reason enough to give a limited number of students another option for their education.

And as for being miffed for not being consulted about Gov. Lee's plans, well, perhaps it would have been better for the administration to initially have gathered members of those affected county delegations around the table. But if they did, the disagreements in that meeting might have kept any legislation from being launched.

We believe the governor had in mind when he came into office a proposal that would satisfy critics of previous voucher-type legislation. It didn't just pay for students to go from public to private schools but would allow them to use state money for other educational purposes. And it wouldn't cause any school districts to have fewer dollars if some students did leave; in fact, it would leave them with more money per capita.

Now, about that compromise ...

One thing we know is that Lee already has shown a willingness to compromise. In a bill the administration wanted that would make it easier to create charter schools, he was satisfied to allow a change that would keep local school boards in the loop when a charter school was created.

Perhaps, in that case, he could limit the number of students eligible in the first few years to determine how the program succeeds and to minimize its impact on public schools. And perhaps he could make children of illegal immigrants born in the U.S. eligible. And then perhaps Gardenhire could sign on (or help broker a different compromise).

Our concern is that every year students are not given more options for a better education, more of them will fall into a life that will not be all it could be. We think they deserve a better chance.

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