Lawmakers revisit school vouchers tied to COVID-19

By: - January 24, 2022 2:03 pm
Inside the Tennessee Senate chambers. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Inside the Tennessee Senate chambers. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Three years after a school voucher bill brought the Legislature to a standstill, lawmakers are being asked to choose sides again but this time with COVID-19 as the main factor.

With dozens of school districts across the state seeking permission from the Department of Education to offer virtual classes as cases of omicron sky-rocket, lawmakers will be pressed to choose between their home folks and allegiance to the politics of COVID-19.

The Senate Education Committee recently passed Senate Bill 1674 sponsored by Sen. Mike Bell when he urged the panel to ensure schools offer in-class learning at least 180 days of the year, the required amount under state law.

Bell’s bill would enable parents in a district that fails to meet that threshold over the next three years to obtain vouchers to send their children to a private school.

This year’s debate takes place in the shadow of arguments over Gov. Bill Lee’s Education Savings Account program, which is before the Tennessee Supreme Court after being found unconstitutional at two lower levels.

A bill sponsored by Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, would enable parents in a district that fails to hold in-person schooling 180 days per year over the next three years to obtain vouchers to send their children to a private school.

Vouchers rocked the Legislature in 2019, pitting pro-school choice lawmakers against those afraid vouchers could be used to take students and funds from their rural school districts and divert them to private schools.

The House deadlocked on the bill that April before now-former House Speaker Glen Casada held the vote board open for nearly 45 minutes to work the chamber for a tie-breaker. Ultimately, Republican Rep. Jason Zachary of Knoxville agreed to change his vote, but only as long as Knox County Schools was removed as a voucher district. 

Metro Nashville Public Schools and Shelby County Schools, the only districts affected, sued the state almost immediately and won their arguments before a Davidson County chancellor and the state Court of Appeals.

Bell, R-Riceville, contends his legislation won’t be affected by the court case. Yet it would change the statute narrowly adopted in 2019.

“We’re doing this because we know in-person learning is the best way to educate a child,” Bell told the committee last week. “We can look back at what happened the last couple of years and there were a couple of districts that decided not to fulfill the purpose they were created to do.”

Bell referred to Metro Nashville Public Schools and Shelby County Schools, which irritated Republican lawmakers by offering virtual learning only, instead of reopening schools at the height of the pandemic at the start of the 2020-21 school year. Several other districts in Republican-controlled counties also used virtual learning and hybrid methods in 2020-21.

The state has approved 110 requests in 34 districts this year for temporary virtual learning, and Cleveland City Schools in Bell’s district has been using virtual classes this year.

Sen. Joey Hensley, R-Hohenwald, was the only GOP senator to vote against a bill limiting virtual schooling. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Sen. Joey Hensley, R-Hohenwald, was the only GOP senator to vote against a bill limiting virtual schooling. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Despite the spread of omicron, Bell and Republican lawmakers are persisting with the legislation.

Last week’s 6-2-1 vote didn’t come without some interesting notes.

Sen. Joey Hensley of Hohenwald, the only Republican to vote against the bill, argued that such a measure would not prevent students from missing days at school during the current school year if the district decided to close schools or shut down because of widespread illness. 

Consequently, the bill would become punitive.

Republican Sen. Rusty Crowe of Kingsport passed on the vote, saying he was “caught in a quandary.” Crowe explained that even though he supports in-school learning, he met recently with school boards in his district and told members he didn’t think vouchers would be an issue this session.

Thus, he was “caught between knowing parents should have choice” and keeping his word to school boards at home.

The Tennessee Education Association is questioning why the matter is coming up at all, especially when the Supreme Court hasn’t ruled on the case.

Bell acknowledges this piece of legislation could wind up in court, too, but points out it has statewide application. The courts determined Gov. Lee’s voucher bill violates Tennessee’s Home Rule provision because it targets only two counties without approval by either the Shelby County Commission or Metro City Council.

The bill’s language could have long-term impact, as well, because if a district fails to meet the 180-day threshold when a student is in third grade that child would have the opportunity to use a voucher to enroll in private school as a junior or senior in high school.

“That’s just the way the bill’s written,” Bell said.

Bell removed language from the bill dealing with masks because the matter is caught up in a federal lawsuit.

Nevertheless, the Tennessee Education Association calls the legislation a form of punishment.

“If you want to ensure 180 days of in-person instruction, how about a carrot instead of a threat?” says TEA lobbyist Jim Wrye.

For instance, the state could set up a fund and reward districts that meet the 180-day requirement to purchase new computers or other equipment, he said. In addition, the education commissioner is already allowed to withhold funds from districts that don’t meet certain requirements, Wrye added.

The legislation would amend the statute that created the Education Savings Account program, according to state Rep. Michael Curcio, a Dickson Republican sponsoring the House version of the bill. It hasn’t been scheduled for a hearing in that chamber yet.

The Legislature has funded the ESA program annually but hasn’t been allowed to put it in place.

“We’ve got families who’ve been stuck in a situation through no fault of their own where their children aren’t getting the education they need to get,” Curcio says.

Collierville City Schools, which reopened in 2020-21 while Shelby County Schools remained closed, was requesting virtual learning at the start of the legislative session two weeks ago.

If you want to ensure 180 days of in-person instruction, how about a carrot instead of a threat?

– Jim Wrye, lobbyist for the Tennessee Education Association

Curcio believes that just as school boards should have the option to use virtual classrooms, parents should then be able to “make a choice that corresponds with that and say I don’t think this is the best environment for my child.”

In the Senate Education Committee debate, however, Sen. Raumesh Akbari pointed out that private schools in Shelby County have been using virtual education because of the spread of the virus.

“It’s still state dollars, and they’re taking state dollars to a private school that’s potentially doing the same thing that the public school is doing, so it’s not helping a problem,” Akbari said. “It is giving the parent a state fund to take their child to a private school.”

School districts could use stockpiled days to avoid failing to make the threshold, the same as they use days for bad weather or other illnesses. Periodically, districts have closed schools for the flu over the years, but COVID-19 caused the greatest interruption.

Schools shut down toward the end of the 2019-20 school year with the governor’s support. Many districts reopened in 2020-21, with the notable exceptions of Metro Nashville and Shelby County, which decided to reopen midway through the year after lawmakers threatened to punish them.

So far this school year, though, the state’s two largest districts have remained open while other districts have shut down schools and gone to virtual learning.

The state has approved 124 of 133 requests in more than 34 districts this year for temporary virtual learning, and Cleveland City Schools in Bell’s district has been using virtual classes this year. Two were denied, one was partially approved and six were found ineligible, according to the Department of Education.

Waivers are valid for five calendar days, and districts can use stockpile days normally used for inclement weather, if necessary.

 

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Sam Stockard
Sam Stockard

Sam Stockard is a veteran Tennessee reporter and editor, having written for the Daily News Journal in Murfreesboro, where he served as lead editor when the paper won an award for being the state's best Sunday newspaper two years in a row. He has led the Capitol Hill bureau for The Daily Memphian. His awards include Best Single Editorial from the Tennessee Press Association.

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