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Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee talks about a new company that is setting up manufacturing operations in Dayton, Tenn., during an event earlier in March.

NASHVILLE — Tennessee Republican Gov. Bill Lee's controversial school voucher program makes its first public appearance Tuesday in the Tennessee Legislature in the House's GOP-led Curriculum, Testing & Innovation Subcommittee.

The seven-members of the panel are likely to be looking out on a substantial number of public school teachers in opposition on hand as the Tennessee Education Association, the state's teachers union, last week began mobilizing members to attend.

"VOUCHER BILL FILED, UP FOR VOTE TUESDAY MARCH 19," TEA officials posted in a call to action posted on the organization's Facebook page. "We need every educator who can come to the Capitol on Tuesday, March 19!"

It comes after the Lee administration's 16-page amendment to a placeholder bill was released last week. It puts flesh on the proposal announced by the new governor during his first State of the State address on March 4.

"We're not going to get big results in our struggling schools by nibbling around the edges," Lee said during the speech in which he also announced a second effort to expand public charter schools. "That is why we need Education Savings Accounts in Tennessee, this year. ESAs will enable low-income students from the most under-performing school districts to attend an independent school of their choice at no cost to their family."

The TEA, however, sees ESAs as a threat to public education and want to derail it. Beth Brown, a Grundy County teacher and president of the state's largest teacher group, said education savings accounts are "vouchers with less accountability that are more susceptible to fraud and abuse."

Lee's administration says adequate protections to deter such problems are contained in the bill. The TEA may have difficulty to defeating the bill in subcommittee given the panel's 5-2 Republican edge and with one of the two Democrats a long-time school voucher proponent.

Modeled after actions taken by at least five other states, Lee's proposal would let parents or guardians meeting residency and income qualifications in four lower-performing school districts, including Hamilton County, use public dollars to send their children to private schools.

Eligible students would have to be zoned to attend a school system with at least three schools falling into the bottom 10 percent of rankings based on student scores. The amendment's language doesn't specify that the students must be attending a failing school.

A student would have to have attended a Tennessee public school a full year prior before becoming eligible or else be eligible to enroll in a public school for the first time.

Lee is looking at spending $125 million over five years with the program likely to kick off in the fall of 2021 with up to 10,000 students and $75 million in cash on hand.

According to the administration's amendment, parents of students could receive up to $7,300 in state funds annually for education savings accounts, which differ from traditional vouchers which are given directly to private schools.

Parents or guardians would be in charge of the education savings accounts, although subject to state restrictions and potential auditing. And the the money can be used to help pay for private school tuition as well as education-related expenses ranging from tuition to textbook and tutoring to transportation.

Participation is pegged to incomes that are double the amount of income to qualify for existing free- or reduced-price lunch programs. That's $46,435 for a family of four to qualify for the lunch program, according to state education department figures.

Doubling that takes it to $92,870 and that could make a middle class family of four in Hamilton County eligible, according to a Pew Research Center calculator.

Parents could use the money to pay for or supplement tuition costs at private schools, including church-based schools, provided the schools have accreditation from a state-approved private or regional school accrediting agency.

Private schools would have to agree to administer the state's assessment tests for math and English language arts.

The amendment actually spells out that the program would be established this fall with 5,000 students eligible. Lee is proposing providing $25 million each year. But with the administration envisioning it would really start in three years, that would allow the program to build up the $75 million account because an additional $25 million each year would be added.

Because enrollment would grow by 2,500 a year on top of the initial 5,000 students, the program could hit up to 15,000 students by Year 5 at a cost of upwards of the $125 million. Growth in subsequent years would be restricted to 1,000 annually.

If more students than expected seek to enter the program, the legislation provides for a lottery. Preference would be given to students whose siblings are already in the program, students actually attending a failing school — which is defined as the bottom 5 percent of schools — and those whose families qualify for food stamps.

Lee also proposes another $25 million annually over a three-year period to reimburse school districts for state funding they otherwise would lose from students using the voucher program. After Year 3, Lee would ask lawmakers to provide $25 million in grants to help the bottom 5 percent of schools in terms of student performance.

The bill is HB939/SB795.

Bill, bills and bills

* Local lawmakers' effort to allow permitting in septic tank waste systems for residential construction despite a sewer connection moratorium is nearing final passage in the House.

Rep. Patsy Hazlewood, R-Signal Mountain, last week won approval from the Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee for the bill, introduced by Hazlewood and Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, at the request of the Homebuilders Association of Greater Chattanooga.

Homebuilders, developers and property owners are concerned about the impact of a late-2018 moratorium imposed on new sewer hookups by the county's Water and Wastewater Treatment Authority at the direction of state environmental officials.

The bill allows certain types of new home construction to utilize septic tanks but also includes language requiring sellers to notify prospective home buyers of their legal obligation to hook up to the county's sewers whenever the local authority is able to address chronic raw sewage overflows.

Senators earlier this month approved Gardenhire's bill on a 31-0 vote. Hazlewood's House version cleared the Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee last week and is now headed to the Calendar and Rules Committee, the last panel before it goes to the House floor for final action.

The bill is SB178/HB165.

* Senators last week voted 31-0 and passed a bill by Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson. It allows active military service members stationed outside Tennessee to maintain their state-issued handgun carry license with an official stamp saying it remains valid. The House version, handled by Rep. Micah Van Huss, R-Gray, is still in committee.

The bill is SB95/HB41.

* A recently passed Watson bill aimed at curbing opioid prescriptions is scheduled Thursday for House floor consideration. It defines "alternative treatments" physicians are to discuss with patients including chiropractic care, physical therapy, acupuncture and other treatments that relieve pain without the use of the narcotic painkillers.

The bill, SB194/HB150, is sponsored in the House by GOP Caucus Chairman Cameron Sexton of Crossville.

* Another bill sponsored by Hazlewood and Watson which seeks to clear up confusion about political activity surrounding entrances to voting polling stations cleared the House last week after previously passing the Senate. The bill defines entrance with regard to the existing 100-foot boundary prohibiting political activity. The bill is being put into proper legal form before send it off to Lee for his consideration.

The bill is SB71/HB28.

'There's no need to be afraid of Robin, as long as '

When Rep. Robin Smith, R-Hixson, presented her first bill last week on the Tennessee House floor Thursday, the first-year lawmaker encountered the traditional razzing of new members by the chamber's self-appointed troller of freshmen, Deputy Speaker Matthew Hill.

Smith's bill, brought to her by the state Board of Nursing and the Tennessee Nurses Association, prohibits the use of title "nurse" unless the person is licensed by the Board of Nursing.

"Nursing has been a licensed profession whether you're a licensed practical nurse or registered nurse or advanced practice nurse," said Smith, a registered nurse by training and a sometimes hard-knuckled former Tennessee Republican Party chairman when explaining the legislation.

Enter Hill. Several years ago, the Jonesborough Republican picked up the torch of predecessors who, over decades, have delighted in embarking on a public initiation rite at the expense of new members, a number of whom get rattled by the performance.

Asking if this was her first bill, Hill added, "I thought you just gave a great speech by the way. I think you did a wonderful job. I still think no one on this floor knows what in the world your bill does."

And so it went.

"Apparently some people are very frightened of you," Hill said, "because they came up to me earlier and said you're not going to say anything about Rep. Smith's bill are you? I just laughed and said, 'Of course I am.'"

Smith replied that so far as "people being afraid of me, I happen to know someone called Ken Hill — your father — and helped [him] over the course of time. And I'll be conferring with him later today.

"But there's no need to be afraid of Robin — as long as we work together, row together, play together, have fun together, make good laws and serve the state of Tennessee," Smith said. "Yes, I am a freshman at the ripe old age of 55. And this is a great bill," she added.

Said Hill: "I do appreciate you launching your re-election campaign right here on the House floor. I do find it extremely interesting that you invoke the name of my beloved father because that apparently is the only way you're going to get your bill passed here on the House floor."

The bill passed 94-1.

Contact staff writer Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow on Twitter @AndySher1.

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