ESA School Voucher Bill Updates

Update (May 1st): The conference committee version passes the House 51-46. Despite scare local support and two local boards of education voicing opposition to the bill, both of our representatives – Marsh and Tillis – voted in favor of the ESA voucher legislation.

In the Senate, the bill passes 19-14 with Senator Reeves voting yes. From here, it goes to Governor Lee’s desk to be signed. After that, it’ll most likely be challenged in the courts for parts considered unconstitutional.

Original: After being deadlocked 49-49 on the ESA school voucher bill, our state House passed the voucher bill 50-48 thanks to Representative Jason Zachary, of Knoxville, flipping his original no vote to a yes vote. The Senate version of the bill passed 20-13.

For our own legislators, Senator Reeves along with Representatives Marsh and Tillis voted in favor of the voucher bill.

What’s Next

The voucher bill heads to conference committee next. Then it’ll be back before the House and the Senate for a final vote.

Here’s the issues legislators will focus on in the conference.

That means you should keep calling and emailing our reps!

Sen. Shane Reeves
Phone: 615-741-1066

Rep. Pat Marsh
Phone: (615) 741-6824

Rep. Rick Tillis
Phone: (615) 741-4170

If you’ve never talked with your state legislators before, it can be difficult to know exactly what to say. Here’s a few of the common talking points I’ve seen from representatives that voted yes on the House version of the bill.

This legislation creates a pilot program for some of the worst schools and the poorest families that would affect only 2 to 4 counties in the state. These counties have 99% of the failing schools in our state.

Representatives from those 2-4 counties have overwhelmingly voiced opposition to vouchers. Most notably, Knoxville Rep. Jason Zachary only voted yes after he received promises of Knoxville being exempt from the ESA program.

For the representatives of the remaining Tennessee counties to force those 2-4 into voucher programs doesn’t seem like a conservative approach. Local school boards and governments know best what their students need. We’d be infuriated if a representative from Shelby county came into Lincoln County and tried to dictate how to operate our local schools. That’s in essence what we’re doing to those 2-4 counties.

78% of Tennesseans polled are in favor of some sort of ESAs.

This poll comes from American Federation for Children, a pro-voucher organization. A 2018 poll by the same group shows that Tennesseans were opposed to vouchers. A 2017 poll from the same group also shows a lack of majority support for vouchers.

The frustrating part of this AFC 2019 poll is the incredibly small sample size. It was conducted by telephone in a five day period from January 31 to February 4 by Mason-Dixon polling. Only 625 people participated. Our state population is north of 6 million so 625 participants is almost meaningless.

One last point on that poll – the Tennessee State Director of American Federation for Children, Shaka Mitchell, is a former regional director for Rocketship charter schools. We’re getting flawed ESA legislation trying to match up with a single seriously flawed poll. 

Many people from Lincoln County are pushing for us to at least give it a try.

Lincoln County is overwhelmingly against this ESA legislation. It’s received opposition from both Republicans and Democrats. It’s been opposed by both our county board of education as well as the city board of education. Both our county school director and city school director oppose it.

It does not take any money away from our District. This year we have in our budget $6.5 billion for K-12 education. We’re working hard to continue our commitment to support our District’s great public schools.

Education is the silver bullet. Better education leads to better jobs, more stable families, and improves every area of the community. It reduces unemployment in communities, reduces dependence on public assistance programs, reduces crime, improves public health, and increases civic engagement. If we want a better community – a better Lincoln County – we need to focus our resources on public schools instead of redirecting that money elsewhere.

Again, it’s a pilot program. Let’s see if it works.  If not, we can stop it.

ESAs and school vouchers aren’t pilot programs any longer. They’ve been around long enough, tested in enough states, and researched enough to know the results.

Education professor Martin Carnoy analyzed 25 years of research and found that voucher programs do not significantly improve test scores. Professor Carnoy says vouchers distract from proven policies and programs with proven impact on test scores and graduation rates.

Here’s that research.

A few other things to keep in mind:

  • Be polite and direct. This isn’t a time to wander around the point. Their time is valuable just like your time is.
  • Be prepared. Do your homework and know what you’re talking about. Have the issue outlined along with various ideas for solutions.
  • Don’t go it alone. Talk with friends, family, and others in the community about the issue you’re trying to raise. Have them contact public officials with you.

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