Like the undead in the hit series Game of Thrones, dead-headed privatization ideas just keep coming and coming. And while they may break through a wall, the war is far from over.
After months of pork-laden incentives, strong-arm threats, tight committee votes, dozens of bill changes, and millions spent in high-paid lobbyists roaming the Capitol, the House narrowly passed the Lee administration’s voucher legislation 51-46. The Senate passed the legislation 19-14.
“We saw the worst side of politics during this ugly affair,” said TEA President Beth Brown. “Right in front of our eyes, we watched all the under-handed tactics used by the other side to force this voucher bill through the legislature.”
Brown and dozens of other TEA members were in the chamber gallery on April 23 when the House floor first voted on the bill. When the vote was first cast, it was tied at 49-49. House Speaker Glen Casada held the vote open for 40 minutes as he searched to find the elusive 50th vote needed for passage. Lawmakers afterward told the media how the speaker’s office made offers to entice them to switch their votes.
The fight from TEA members across the state forced proponents to pass legislation so flawed that groups and local governments have already outlined why they will sue in federal court.
The bill targets only two counties, Davidson and Shelby, with up to 15,000 recipients getting a debit card worth an annual BEP value of $7,300. By 2024, the entitlements may cost taxpayers $109 million annually and will increase the local tax burden in the targeted counties. The bill also excludes children of undocumented families, even children who are U.S. citizens, from getting the vouchers. Legislation targeting certain counties and undocumented families have been overturned by federal courts.
In order to pass the legislation, Hamilton, Madison, and Knox counties were amended out of the bill, as well as all other school districts. It begged the question: If vouchers were such a good idea, why did lawmakers trade their vote to keep it from happening in their district?
It is important to note there was strong bipartisan opposition to the voucher legislation.
Privatizers didn’t get everything they wanted. The bill requires state tests in Math and Language Arts, and private schools which take voucher students will get a TVAAS school score that will be made public, something the privatizers never wanted.
“In this whole tough fight, a bright moment was when the school-wide score amendment was put onto the bill on the Senate floor, the private school lobbyists about melted down,” said TEA lobbyist Jim Wrye. “Privatizers have never been serious about helping low-income children or academic outcomes. It’s about taking money from schools that serve low-income children for others without accountability.”
A family of four with an income of $66,000 is eligible in the two targeted counties, whose children do not have to be zoned for a priority school. This bill is designed to allow children who may be attending the best public schools in the state to get a voucher to leave.
“There were lawmakers who oppose vouchers but voted for this because of pressure by the administration. There were others who feared it would pass with their district included and so tried to amend the bill,” said Wrye. “If we had a level playing field and people could vote their district, this would have been defeated. But Lee and others decided to spend all their political capital on vouchers. Now it is on to the next fight in the privatization wars.”
The bill will now likely be headed to federal court. Shelby and Davidson counties stated their intent to sue, citing a 2012 case that invalidated the first municipal school district law for Shelby County. Judge Samuel Mays, former chief of staff for former Tennessee Gov. Don Sundquist and a George W. Bush appointee, found the law violated the Tennessee state constitution because the General Assembly cannot pass bills with local effect without the approval of the local government.
Immigration groups have also said they will sue on the exclusion language which has been found unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court.
TEA will be active in the rule-making process as the Department of Education works to implement the program, similar to efforts on the special education vouchers known as IEAs. After four years of the program, there were only 133 children using IEAs at the beginning of the school year.
“We may have lost this particular battle, but the fight goes on,” said Brown. “We will never stop fighting for our students and schools.”