For school choice supporters, the Tennessee legislative session ended on Wednesday with a mixture of joy and disappointment. On the positive side, a bill to create education savings accounts for special needs students passed the House and heads to the desk of Governor Bill Haslam. Unfortunately, the decade-long effort to enact a school voucher program was pushed off yet again when the House sponsor chose to withdraw his bill rather than see the bill defeated.
The Individualized Education Account bill allows parents to take control of the local and state dollars earmarked for their child. If a parent chooses to opt their child out of the local public school, he or she will receive an education savings account worth about $6500 per year. Parents can then use the funds for private school tuition and other educational uses for that child. The bill was authored by Senator Delores Gresham and Representative Debra Moody, both of whom did a great job in explaining and defending the bill to their colleagues.
Although many legislators referred to the individualized education account as a voucher, there are several significant differences between the two types of school choice programs. The Opportunity Scholarship bill, on the other hand, is a voucher. However, the bill was pulled by the House sponsor on the last day of committee hearings because it was clear that it would not have enough votes to pass. Advocates had been cautiously optimistic that the voucher bill would finally become law as it had already passed the Senate and made it through several House committees.
The voucher bill would have provided thousands of low-income Tennessee children the opportunity to attend the school of their choice. The program would have allowed about $6500 in state and local funding to follow students to an alternative public or private school. The bill had an initial cap of 5000 voucher slots, but gave priority to students attending the lowest 5% of public schools. However, if seats remained, it expanded eligibility to low-income students in any county which had at least one school in the lowest five percent. This would have included neighborhoods near the Jewish day schools in Memphis.
Agudath Israel, The Beacon Center of Tennessee, The Tennessee Federation for Children, and other coalition partners commend the Tennessee General Assembly for passing its first private school choice bill, and hope that the legislature will expand those options to many more students in 2016.