By MATT BLOIS
After voting in favor of a school voucher program, part of Williamson County’s legislative delegation described the program as a temporary experiment and Trump initiative.
Speaker of the House Glen Casada and Representative Brandon Ogles supported the bill in the House, and Senator Jack Johnson voted for the bill in the senate. Representative Sam Whitson voted against the bill.
The bill would give parents $7,300 to spend on education expenses like private school tuition.
If a parent uses an education savings account to send their child to private school, the old school district would receive funding for that child for three years. After three years, the school district would still receive the local portion of education taxes, but it would not receive the state portion.
The house version of the bill applies to Davidson, Shelby, Hamilton and Knox counties. The senate version only applies to Davidson and Shelby counties. The House and Senate need to reconcile the bills before the voucher program goes to Gov. Bill Lee’s desk.
The vote in the house was initially 49-49, but Speaker Glen Casada talked with legislators and eventually convinced representative Jason Zachary of Knoxville to change his vote.
“I just met with a couple of members and said, Do we want to continue the same track we’re on, which is keeping children in these failing schools, or do we want to take a step in the direction of thinking outside the box?” Casada said at the Williamson Inc. Legislative Update on Friday morning. “I spoke to a couple of members and two of them said OK. Let’s support the governor and let’s support the president. This is a President Trump initiative as well.”
On Wednesday, Trump praised Tennessee’s voucher bill on Twitter. Johnson also reminded the audience that Trump is a supporter of the bill.
Both Casada and Johnson said they supported the bill because they believe giving low-performing schools more money hasn’t solved the problem. They hope that the vouchers could offer a different approach.
“We’ve put in reading teachers and teacher’s aides. The list is long of how we’ve tried to help these failing schools, and it’s just not working,” Casada said. “If what you’re doing isn’t working, let’s try a little, up to 15,000-student, outside-the-box change. Let’s move forward and see if that works. If it doesn’t work we’ll scrap it.”
Johnson said the program is partially a proof of concept. The program will include a lot of monitoring and data collection, but he added it will take years before the state can evaluate its effectiveness.
“There’s two objectives here. One is obviously to help kids … The other is to gather data and figure out how this works,” Johnson said. “You still don’t know how it’s going to work in Tennessee. What’s the participation rate going to be? There’s a lot of different factors.”
Whitson was the only member of the Williamson County legislative delegation to vote against the voucher proposal. When he won reelection in November, he knew that position on school vouchers could cause some friction with Republican leadership.
“I was a middle child, so I’m used to this,” he said. “I went to my speaker, my leader, my advisor, and I said, Glen I’ve got a problem. This is what I campaigned on. I’ve got to stand by that. Glen said you stay by your word.”
In addition to discussing the vote on the education savings account program. Legislators also reviewed some other proposals the legislature might consider.
Casada said there’s a lot of support for keeping the state permanently on daylight savings time, but the proposal is logistically complicated and probably won’t happen soon.
Ogles said he was initially opposed to legalizing online sports gambling in the state, but now that he’s seen how much money the taxes could bring in he’s come around to the idea.
The next legislative update is scheduled for May 31.