ABOVE: Protesters at the state Capitol on Tuesday. // PHOTO BY STEPHEN ELLIOTT
Gov. Bill Lee’s voucher-like education savings account plan passed two votes at the state Capitol Tuesday despite some opposition from his fellow Republicans and almost all Democrats.
The House passed a version of the governor’s proposal 50-48, while the Senate Finance, Ways and Means Committee voted 6-5 to positively recommend a different version of the bill, likely sending it to the Senate floor.
The bill, which would give eligible parents about $7,300 to use on private school tuition and other education-related costs, has been amended repeatedly since Lee introduced it at his first State of the State address in March. The House version of the bill would allow the education savings accounts for students in Davidson, Shelby, Hamilton and Knox counties, while the newly amended Senate version would only operate in Davidson and Shelby counties.
In the House, the vote tally was initially 49-49, which would have left the legislation one vote short of the majority needed to pass. But Republican Speaker Glen Casada left the tally open for more than 30 minutes and, when the chamber reconvened, Rep. Jason Zachary (R-Knoxville) changed his vote, resulting in the successful tally for the governor’s bill.
One member, Republican Rep. Debra Moody, was absent, and House leadership said her vote would have secured success anyway.
“The 50th vote was around the corner,” Casada said. “We had the votes.”
Speaking to reporters after the vote, Zachary said he had been assured that the bill would be changed to exclude Knox County, but the version he voted for does not include that language. Casada said the House would agree to the Senate’s exclusion of Knox County and would negotiate on Hamilton County if the two versions of the governor’s bill make it to a conference committee, where the two chambers hash out their differences.
“Sometimes, members just have to think about their vote,” Casada said.
Democratic Caucus Chair Mike Stewart (D-Nashville) objected to the lengthy tally on the floor and later called the move “an unconstitutional act of trickery.” He suggested a lawsuit questioning the constitutionality of the vote could follow.
Between the slim margin in both chambers and the significant differences between the two bills, the coming negotiations in a conference committee and votes to approve a deal could bring further problems for the bill, which Casada called “the most important thing to our governor.” According to Casada, Lee made about 30 calls during the back-and-forth over the bill.
Bipartisan opposition to the bill existed long before the procedural machinations Tuesday morning. Critics have questioned why the bill would only apply to some counties, why participating students would only be required to take some state tests and whether a provision requiring parents to provide documentation was constitutional.
House Majority Leader William Lamberth (R-Portland) justified the targeted nature of the bill by pointing to the “leadership issues” in Metro Nashville Public Schools.
“Children in the Davidson County area and a couple of other areas have had to suffer through poor administration, poor leadership and absolutely horrendous results, while statewide, virtually every other school district has improved,” Lamberth said.
But most lawmakers in the counties affected by the proposed legislation asked their colleagues in other areas to reconsider their support.
“We want to opt out of this piece of legislation,” Rep. Jason Powell (D-Nashville) said. “Not one of us is for this piece of legislation.”
Public school advocates, including teachers groups, have aggressively opposed the legislation, which they say will hurt traditional public schools by draining their funding. The Franklin Special School District passed a resolution in opposition to the measure, fearing that it would siphon money away from public schools.
During the first three years of students’ participation in the pilot program, their school district would receive a grant for part (in the House version) or all (in the Senate version) of the lost per-pupil funding, which Lee policy director Tony Niknejad told the Senate Finance Committee was a “sufficient runway” for those schools.
“This bill is putting something on us that most of the members in this body don’t want for their own districts,” Rep. Antonio Parkinson (D-Memphis) said. “If it’s not good enough for your children, it’s not good enough for mine, either.”