Cooper: Education savings account a start; changes needed

Cooper: Education savings account a start; changes needed

May 3rd, 2019 by Clint Cooper in Opinion Free Press

A version of Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee's original education savings account bill is on the way to his desk for his signature.

Photo by Doug Strickland /Times Free Press.

An education savings account bill that initially seemed to offer such promise for school choice in the state has passed the Tennessee House and Senate and is on its way to the governor's office contorted and bloodied but unbowed.

We have long been a proponent for offering students in struggling schools a reprieve and hoped a new governor with new ideas could make it happen.

But Gov. Bill Lee's education savings account plan, though it smoothed over some of the problems previous bills had, was controversial from the beginning. It was never going to have the support of the public-education-or-die crowd, but it automatically excluded some students in the struggling school districts who should have been included and included some who needn't have been covered.

In the end, it wound up covering only Metro Nashville and Shelby County (Memphis) schools and those in the state's Achievement School District for failing public schools.

We're delighted that families who qualify in those districts will receive about $7,300 in state and local tax dollars to use for private schools, for transportation to different public schools or for educational assists like laptop computers. We hope in time it will be shown the extra money given for those students — up to 15,000 of them — has made a real and measurable difference.

That was Lee's hope and inspiration for creating the program, and he was right to try something new and include money in the budget for it rather than have schools lose funds if children leave for other schools.

But the bill, which initially also included schools in Hamilton, Knox and Madison counties, wound up being cut back to only districts containing the state's two largest cities.

It picked up support from some members of the Hamilton County delegation because the county was excluded. Some of those members felt they had made promises two years ago to give then-new Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Dr. Bryan Johnson an opportunity to turn around the district with the help of the state and locally created Partnership Network.

We'd have limited the bill to the districts' most struggling students — those on free and reduced lunch, for instance — instead of district students whose parents can earn up to $66,000 annually. Our choice also would have been to limit the money to pay for private schools — and for the money to go directly to the schools — but we recognize there are other ways in which students might receive educational benefits from the money.

And although we have spoken out strongly against the seemingly free flow of illegal immigrants across the nation's Southern border, we don't see the need to punish both students born in the U.S. of illegal immigrant parents and those who were brought here by their illegal immigrant parents. And that's what this bill does.

The students who were born in the U.S. are full American citizens, whether we like how their parents came here or not. To exclude them, especially, from this program is shameful.

The education savings account bill, assuming Lee signs it and assuming court challenges don't strike it down, was written to hold school districts harmless for three years. But changes can be made to the legislation as soon as next year.

We genuinely hope progress will be shown by the students whose parents receive these education savings accounts, but we also hope the legislature will consider revisions. If the accounts are limited to those children on free and reduced lunches — or some other measure of need — they might be expanded to students in other struggling districts.

But we especially hope a change is made to include students in qualifying districts who were born in the U.S. but whose parents are illegal immigrants and those who were brought here as children by their illegal immigrant parents. It doesn't appear an amnesty program, nor a plan to remove such families from the country, will be passed by Congress anytime soon. Neither does it appear that illegal immigrant families who live their lives without crime (other than being here illegally) or controversy are likely to be bothered.

So the children of these families born in the U.S. are likely to grow up here, pay sales tax in our sales tax-heavy state and go on to pay Social Security and federal income taxes like every other citizen. And even those not born here will pay sales taxes and can get an individual tax identification number so they can pay any federal income taxes they eventually may owe.

In other words, it is to the state's benefit that they receive a quality education and will, in turn, become productive taxpayers. The education savings accounts for them would be a step in that direction.

For now, we appreciate Gov. Lee's effort, hope what passed will bear fruit and look forward to changes in the program in the future.

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