Tennessee politics: School voucher bill for Hamilton County up for House floor debate Monday

NASHVILLE — A bill extending Tennessee’s private-school voucher program for low-income students in the Hamilton County school district is expected to come before the Tennessee House on Monday.

Previously approved by the Senate in February to apply only to Hamilton County, House Republicans plan to add Knox County to the 2019 law.

Republican Gov. Bill Lee’s Education Savings Account pilot program, which covers Metro Nashville and Shelby County schools, became effective this school year after the Tennessee Supreme Court overruled two lower courts’ decisions and found the law constitutional.

At this time, 643 low-income students in Metro Nashville and Shelby County receive about $8,100 annually per child in taxpayer dollars to attend private schools.

Lee brought the original legislation. It passed after lawmakers, including longtime voucher proponents, stripped their own counties from the bill, leaving only Nashville and Shelby County, amid allegations some House GOP supporters were rewarded with pork-barrel projects.

Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, a longtime voucher proponent, sponsored this year’s bill to expand the program after it survived legal challenge. He passed his version, Senate Bill 12, in February.

Gardenhire has said he and other local lawmakers in 2019 excluded Hamilton County at the request of county school officials who told them they were confident a 2017 program established with the help of local dollars with $20 million in funding to address priority schools would be successful.

But it hasn’t worked, the senator told the Senate in February when passing his bill. He noted when the 2017 program began, it had five schools on the priority list, but the list eventually grew to nine. He noted that after publicly stating he intended to bring the bill, the school system removed Brainerd High School from the list, leaving eight.

The initial project director is no longer in that position, and the then-superintendent left the system for another job.

“Now we have a new superintendent of schools, and he wants a chance to make this program work,” Gardenhire told senators. “This effort is like a game of whack-a-mole. You fix one, and three pop up. And that’s why I’m bringing this bill … I’m going to give the parents and the students the opportunity to have a choice and not be trapped in failing schools.”

Gardenhire has said he expects fewer than 200 low-income families in Hamilton County to pursue the voucher alternative initially. The state limit is 15,000 statewide under existing law.

The bill is expected to pass the House. Once it does, it will come back to the upper chamber for senators to agree to the Knox County amendment. Gardenhire has previously said he will accept the amendment.

Teacher professional dues collections spat headed for floor fight

The House also Monday will consider an amended version of Lee’s Senate-passed teacher pay bill. The anti-union governor has coupled an increase in public school teachers’ minimum base salaries from $40,000 to $50,000 by 2027 with a provision removing the decadeslong collection of payroll deductions for educator professional association members’ dues by the state.

But last week, the provision ending dues deductions was stripped from the lower-chamber’s version, House Bill 329, with an amendment sponsored by Rep. Sam Whitson, R-Franklin. It was approved by voice vote over the objections of Majority Leader William Lamberth, R-Portland.

“I fully support the $125 million funding for our teachers,” Whitson, no stranger to handling tough measures, told the committee. “However, I feel part of this legislation should be two separate bills.”

Replied Lamberth: “With all due respect to the sponsor, the amendment, I would make a motion to lay this amendment on the table. This is a bill that came to us from the governor’s office. It does involve teacher pay raises and had a secondary part that dealt with wage withholdings and withdrawal and would prefer the bill remain in its original posture if at all possible.”

Whitson countered, “We do fully support teachers. However, we feel this singles out a different group of state employees and it should be addressed in a separate piece of legislation.”

Lamberth’s motion to table the amendment failed on a voice vote. The amended bill went on to pass on a voice vote.

The Tennessee Education Association, a professional association that represents many public school teachers and other staff, utilizes state dues collections and has mounted a full-out effort to remove Lee’s elimination of that practice. It also affects the Professional Educators of Tennessee. It would not affect other state employee associations.

If Whitson’s amended version passes the House on Monday, it would likely set the stage for a fight with the Senate as lawmakers hope to wrap up their annual session in the next two weeks.

As Tennessee as pumpkin pie

Lee last Monday signed House Joint Resolution 23, which designates pumpkin pie as an official symbol of the state of Tennessee. The measure was sponsored by Rep. Lowell Russell, R-Lenoir City, after he was asked to do so by a local school to provide a civics class a better understanding of the legislative process.

Russell wound up getting an education as well.

“I didn’t realize this one would bring such media attention, but apparently it did,” Russell said to House Public Service Subcommittee members during the resolution’s maiden appearance earlier in session.

The resolution lasts for the duration of the 113th General Assembly.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-285-9480.

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