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VOL. 44 | NO. 1 | Friday, January 3, 2020

Democrats seek quick reversal of Education Savings Account bill

By Kathy Carlson

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Rep. Bo Mitchell, a Nashville Democratic, was joined by 19 fellow House Democrats in filing a one-sentence bill Aug. 21 that aims to delete from the books a law passed in May that allows state money – about $7,400 per student per year – to go to parents in Memphis and Nashville to send their children to private school instead of public school.

There are 26 Democrats and 73 Republicans in the 99-member state House.

Gov. Bill Lee signed the ESA bill, and his administration adopted a more ambitious schedule to make the $7,400 annual grants available to parents starting in August 2020, in time for the 2020-21 school year.

An administration spokeswoman said then there was no time to lose in helping eligible families move their children out of failing public schools into others where, it was hoped, students could learn and thrive.

So far, regulations have been written and filed with the Tennessee Secretary of State. They are to go into effect Feb. 25.

There will probably be attempts to slow the implementation of ESAs, says Rep. David Hawk, R-Greeneville. He voted against ESAs.

Sen. Raumesh Akbari, D-Memphis, says she thinks lawmakers will seek more clarity on the ESAs this year and possibly require the state education department to wait until 2021-22 to roll out the vouchers.

The legislation called for the ESAs to become available no later than the 2021-22 school year, but ESAs shouldn’t be rushed through, Akbari adds, citing past glitches on TCAP tests. The state tried to rush on educational assessments in the past and ran into technology failures in 2016 that caused paper-and-pencil tests to be given instead of the online testing that had been planned.

There’s also concern over whether families receiving ESAs will have to pay federal income tax based on their value; the federal government, not the state, sets policy on federal taxes.

The state wants to reach agreement with the federal government on the taxability of the ESAs.

Additional educational likely to be addressed this year include a paper TCAP test option for local education agencies. That bill is sponsored by Rep. Scott Cepicky, R-Culleoka, with eight other Republicans signed on as co-prime sponsors.

Lawmakers are also interested in early-grade education, particularly reading.

Sen. Richard Briggs, R-Knoxville, says he is concerned that two-thirds of public school students who complete the third grade cannot read at grade level. That puts them at risk of falling behind in future grades in which reading comprehension is required for students to learn.

Rep. Bill Dunn, also a Knoxville Republican, says he plan to pursue legislation that will reward colleges that graduate effective teachers.

Chris Walker, spokesman for Gov. Lee, said the governor remains interested in vocational education.

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