Friday, November 10, 2023

Tennessee lawmaker preparing for statewide K-12 ESA voucher program

By Jon Styf, The Center Square, Nov 11, 2023   The Tennessee Legislature will hear a proposal to create a statewide educational savings program in the upcoming session, Rep. Mark White, R-Memphis, confirmed to The Center Square on Monday.

White first told The Tennessean of the plan last week. White told The Center Square it “will be a tough hill to climb” and wanted to put the topic out in the open to “continue to have the conversation” on heading in the direction of statewide ESAs to give more parental choice in education.

Last year, a pilot program for ESAs pushed by Gov. Bill Lee and sponsored by White began while the legislature added Hamilton County to the ESA pilot program but Knox County was removed in conference committee between the House and Senate.

White said he expects legislation to be filed, introduced and discussed in committee early in the upcoming session starting in January but the legislation will likely need the entirety of the session to reach its finally, passable form. He said that he does not want to create an unfair playing field where private schools are able to just choose the best students.

White expects to speak with the Lee Administration on the bill and doesn’t believe there will be difficulty finding a Senate sponsor but one has not been designated.

White said it is a misnomer to think that the proposal would be an attack on public education after a bill he sponsored increased public-school funding in the state by $1 billion through the new Tennessee Investment in Student Achievement funding formula.

Instead, he sees a statewide ESA as a way to give parents more educational choice instead of a one-size-fits all approach to education, allowing the ESA to be used at charter, private or home schools.

“[Parents are] locked into a school that is not serving their child,” White said. “Being from Memphis, I know quite a few of those.”

Americans for Prosperity in Tennessee plans to continue to advocate for the statewide ESAs, State Director Tori Venable said.

The group currently has 75 part-time canvassers across the state to knock on doors and ask potential voters questions about everything from the presidential election to the economy and inflation while leaving behind a survey on school choice.

The group plans to increase to 100 in the coming months, meaning they can knock on 200,000 doors of potential voters every two or three months to speak about the ESAs, educational freedom and state policy issues, Venable said. She called statewide ESAs the group's largest objective in the coming year.

Venable said it’s key the program is ESAs and not vouchers because ESA funding goes to parents instead of directly from the state to a private school or elsewhere and that breaks the “governmental strings attached” and allows home schoolers to have access to the funding.

Venable said the potential bill could help rural students by funding students attending micro schools and home school co-ops that would give more educational options to even those outside of population centers. She said Tennessee is now an outlier among neighboring states, including Democrat-led North Carolina, in not having universal ESAs.

She believes the statewide ESA proposal will be a separate program from the current pilot ESA that is funded through TISA funding allocated to each student. The initial proposal will likely have a statewide cap on the number of students who can be accepted but that cap will likely ultimately be removed in future school years.

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