NASHVILLE, Tennessee – Gov. Bill Lee’s Education Savings Account legislation appears headed to a conference committee, as the Tennessee House and State Senate both refused on Monday to move from their respective versions of the bill.
The House passed HB 0939 last Tuesday by one vote after a dramatic 40-minute delay to break a 49 to 49 tie to end in a 50 to 48 vote, as reported by The Tennessee Star. The tie was broken by Representative Jason Zachary (R-Knoxville), after Knox County was removed as one of the participating counties covered in the program.
Two days later, the Senate took up the measure with different language that that passed by the House. After much less drama and by a wider margin, as reported, SB 0795 passed in the Senate with a vote of 20 to 13.
Education Savings Accounts (ESAs), part of a suite of education initiatives by Governor Bill Lee, will provide economically eligible parents with educational choice for their children in school districts with the highest concentrations of poverty and underperforming schools. A portion of state education funds will follow the child to a Tennessee Department of Education approved private school to cover costs of certain educated-related expenses.
Meanwhile, for three years, districts will receive funding for the students that use ESAs to participate in an alternate educational setting. After that, the legislation calls for grants to be awarded – in perpetuity – to priority schools.
Initially, the bill called for five counties to be included in the ESA program – Davidson, Hamilton, Knox, Jackson-Madison and Shelby, but has since been reduced to just Davidson and Shelby. There is a per-year cap of student participants in the initial years of the program, which begins in the 2021-2022, with a maximum number of total participants.
A condition of participating in the program, grade 3 to 11 students must take the TCAP (Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program) testing for math and English language arts.
The differences between the House and Senate bills are significant in terms of substance and related, but not limited, to whether home schooling qualifies for the program, allowable expenses, proof of citizenship versus income verification requirements, the maximum number of participating students per year and in total, the maximum dollar amount to which a participating student is entitled, TCAP testing beyond math and English language arts and referral for criminal prosecution for knowingly fraudulent uses of the ESA funds.
As members of the House and Senate made their way on Monday to the House Chambers for a Joint Session to confirm Governor Bill Lee’s appointment of Carma Dennis McGee to the Tennessee Court of Appeals, Western Section, they were met by a number of shouting protesters opposing the ESA bill.
Holding varying versions of the same theme of “no vouchers,” protesters chanted, “Hey, hey, ho, ho, ESAs have got to go.”
Following the Joint Session, the House and Senate went into their respective Floor Sessions.
The ESA bill appeared on the Message Calendar of the House Floor Session.
Without objection, the House non-concurred in Senate Amendment #5, which made major revisions to HB 0939, and Amendment #2, which corrected a typographical error and made other substantive changes and additions to the bill.
Although there were no objections, several questions posed by Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Stewart (D-Nashville) regarding the process of concurrence and non-concurrence were directed by Speaker Glen Casada (R-Franklin) to the House Parliamentarian, Daniel Hicks.
The message of non-concurrence was sent to the Senate while that body was still in its Monday afternoon Floor Session. The result was that the Senate refused to recede in its actions in adopting Amendments #5 and #2.
As such, HB 0939 has been placed on the Message Calendar for the House Floor Session scheduled for Tuesday, April 30.
If the House in Tuesday’s Floor Session is in concurrence in Senate Amendments #5 and #2, the full House would vote on the measure which requires a Constitutional majority 50 votes.
If the House is in non-concurrence in Senate Amendments #5 and #2, the Speakers of each body will assign members to a conference committee for the purpose of reconciling the differences in the bill.
The House Message calendar for Tuesday, April 30 with the details of the differences in the Education Savings Account language beginning on page 5 can be read here.
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Laura Baigert is a senior reporter at The Tennessee Star.