Late Wednesday evening, an amendment to House Bill 939 was introduced by Hill and ultimately passed by the House Finance, Ways and Means Committee, meaning the full House will now consider the bill.
Hill’s amendment effectively contracts Lee’s initial school voucher proposal to only apply to Tennessee’s four largest school districts, while establishing a pot of grant funds for rural districts with struggling schools.
“We recognize as rural legislators that there are parts of our state that have some very serious and severe challenges when it comes to their schools and school systems,” Hill said during the committee hearing.
“That being said, in our districts and in our rural areas, we have school systems that are excelling ... and we wanted to see if we could strike a balance between helping the school systems that have been identified as the lowest performing schools in our state, while at the same time protecting and helping those schools in the rural areas of our state that are in many cases excelling and doing very well.”
Eligible students in the four counties would receive $7,300 in public funds for private school or other educational-related expenses. Students’ legal status would also have to verified for eligibility, as would their parents’ income.
Here is what’s Hill’s amended Educational Savings Account program would do:
• The voucher program, considered a “pilot,” would be strictly limited to Davidson, Hamilton, Knox and Shelby counties, whose districts have been “historically recognized in the bottom 10 percent of all schools in the state and across the country,” according to a press release from House Republican leadership.
• The Educational Savings Account benefit would cease once an eligible student moves outside of an eligible district, or removed from school for bad conduct or other behavior.
• The program will be capped at 30,000 students. Hill said hardened caps on the number of eligible recipients will increase annually until year five, when the cap is sustained at 30,000 students indefinitely.
• Educational Savings Account student expenditures will be limited to narrowly defined, pre-approved purchases, such as tuition, textbook, tutoring services, transportation fees, computer hardware and school uniforms, among others.
• Hill said the Tennessee Department of Education would be authorized to recoup any missed assets, implement fraud mitigation efforts and refer bad actors for criminal prosecution.
• To clearly measure if the voucher program is effective, participating students will take the English, language arts and math portions of the state assessment.
• Annual school improvement grants would be created for failing schools located outside of the four counties participating in the Educational Savings Account program.
According to the amended legislation, the annual school improvement grants will total 25 percent of the amount of vouchers awarded during the first year. The grant will increase to 50 percent of the voucher amount awarded in year two, and 75 percent in year three.
“Deputy Speaker Hill played an important part in negotiations with Governor Lee as this bill evolved to ensure his school systems were not unintentionally harmed by this proposed legislation,” House Speaker Glen Casada said in the House GOP press release.
“He is a passionate advocate on behalf of his students, teachers, and schools, and I appreciate his dedication to the future leaders of our state.”
The full House and Senate Finance, Ways and Means Committee are both scheduled to consider the bill on Tuesday.
Eds. Note: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the Educational Savings Account proposal is House Bill 943. It’s actually House Bill 939.