Updated at 6:39 p.m. on Monday, April 1, 2019.
NASHVILLE — U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos on Monday cheered on Republican Gov. Bill Lee's proposed school choice legislation, but the secretary sought to steer clear of Lee's controversial effort to keep undocumented immigrant children out of his proposed school voucher plan.
"I think that's a matter for Tennessee to debate and grapple with and clearly that is ongoing right now," DeVos told reporters Monday after she and Lee toured LEAD Cameron, a public charter middle school in Nashville.
Asked if any other states have included language to deter undocumented students, DeVos said, "I'm not aware of any.
"But," the secretary quickly added, "I'm sure that as we continue to have these conversations, that debate will continue to be fostered. And it's an important one ... and Tennessee is in the middle of really considering a number of very important moves for students here and all kids here in Tennessee."
Lee is pressing the GOP-led Legislature to approve his education savings account plan. It would allow parents in school districts with at least three public schools falling into the state's bottom 10 percent to use public dollars to send their children to private and religious K-12 schools.
Hamilton County's school district is one of five systems across the state that would be that would be impacted. A sixth entity — the state's Achievement School District, an earlier Tennessee experiment to deal with troubled schools — also is affected.
DeVos' visit came shortly before Lee's voucher bill — The "Tennessee Education Savings Accounts Act" — came for review in the Republican-led House Government Operations Committee. After spirited arguments in opposition from minority Democrats, the bill later on Monday won a positive recommendation and moved on to the Finance Committee.
Last month, the Lee administration last added language to the education savings program bill after the governor came under fire from a national anti-immigration group. The Federation for American Immigration Reform had charged the Tennessee bill would allow "illegal aliens" to use vouchers.
That's based on a 1981 U.S. Supreme Court decision that held undocumented children are entitled to a free public education under the U.S. Constitution's equal protection clause. As a result, public schools long ago stopped asking about students' immigration status.
In an effort to address that, the administration says parents will have to supply federal or state documents such as a driver's license, birth certificate, naturalization papers or green card status. Nothing was said about immigration — the administration says that is to help deter or detect fraud and ensure taxpayer-provided education savings account money is being used properly.
One bill opponent, Rep. G.A. Hardaway, D-Memphis, wasn't buying it. After the bill moved out of the Government Operations Committee, Hardaway said he is asking Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery for a legal opinion on that and other questions he has about the bill.
"I will be," Hardaway said, noting, "you have to be careful what you ask for or that will be all you can get. So I'll be asking just a general question on the constitutionality of the bill. Under that, I'll be looking to the issues of should a parent have to provide a birth certificate. You may have parents who have no birth certificate [and] the child born here."
Under the bill, parents who meet income qualifications could use an average of $7,300 in state funds. Locally raised tax dollars would go toward the savings account, as well. Money could be used to pay for tuition and related education costs.
To address previous concerns over middle-class parents in a family of four with incomes hitting $90,000 potentially becoming eligible, the administration reduced the level by shifting a family having income double the standard needed to qualify for free and reduced-lunch programs to simply the free lunch program.
That knocked the income level down to about $60,000. The administration also has removed a provision that would allow parents who home school their children to apply for the education savings accounts.
The governor is proposing spending up to $125 million by year 5 for his proposal. At the same time, he said, he will provide impacted school systems $25 million a year for the first three years and then $25 million more annually to address the lowest-performing traditional public schools.
In yet another concession to win approval from fellow Republicans on the House Education Committee, the governor also has agreed to limit the voucher program to no more than 15,000 students.
During her trip to Nashville, DeVos praised Lee's efforts, saying "school choice and education freedom is on the march."
Before becoming President Trump's education secretary, DeVos had been heavily involved in voucher and charter school battles across the U.S., putting big dollars behind efforts by political action committees in states, including in Tennessee legislative races where a number of mostly rural Republicans opposed to vouchers came under political attack in their campaigns.
"And I'm excited about what Tennessee is debating right now and talking about doing the right thing for every kid and every kid's future here in Tennessee," she said.
Lee told reporters his proposals won't harm Tennessee's public schools, which serve about 1 million students annually.
"The vast majority of our children will be educated in public schools, so we always want to make certain that anything we do will strengthen our public schools and that is the approach here. It's to provide access for every kid to have [a] quality education here in Tennessee."
Contact Andy Sher at email@example.com or 615-255-0550. Follow on Twitter @AndySher1.
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