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Hill, Holsclaw defend their differing votes on school voucher bill

Zach Vance • Apr 23, 2019 at 7:33 PM

Five of the seven members of the Northeast Tennessee delegation cast votes on the House floor Tuesday in support of Gov. Bill Lee’s education savings account bill, providing just enough votes, 50, for it to pass.

State Reps. Matthew Hill, Timothy Hill, Micah Van Huss, Bud Hulsey and John Crawford joined 45 others in supporting the controversial program, while Reps. John Holsclaw, R-Elizabethton, and David Hawk, R-Greeneville, cast two of the 48 votes in opposition.

Hill and Holsclaw spoke to the Press Tuesday and explained their differing votes.

In explaining his opposition to the program, Holsclaw said he is opposed to using public tax dollars, regardless of where they come from, for charter schools or a private education, especially with public schools in his district financially struggling.

“You can put any spin on it you want, but at the end of the day, it’s using tax dollars for other issues instead of public schools,” Holsclaw said.

Conservatively estimated, Holsclaw said he received between 400 and 500 emails from constituents about the school voucher bill, with most asking him to oppose it.

When asked why he felt his other colleagues supported the bill, Holsclaw said political pressure from leadership likely factored into their decisions.

“At the end of the day, I got offered a whole lot for my vote, and I held out, even though, I could have got what I wanted,” Holsclaw said.

In defending his support of the program, Hill said the $75 million used to pay for the school vouchers over the next three years would come from the state portion of BEP funds allocated to those four urban counties. Hill said Washington County is expected to see its state portion of BEP funds grow from $34.7 million this year to $35.6 million next year, while Johnson City will see its portion increase from $32.3 million this year to $33.8 million next year.

“I wanted to make sure we had a piece of legislation that helped the children in the failing schools, but held my schools and my teachers harmless. With my amendment, they’re held financially harmless and they’re held harmless from ever having the (educational savings accounts) affect them,” said Hill, who amended the bill during a House Finance Ways and Means Committee meeting last week.

"Look, just alone in Shelby County, they have 27 failing schools. In Davidson County, they have 21 failing schools, according to the Department of Education. I mean those children need an alternative, and because of my amendment, that alternative will be paid for by those (local education agencies), not by any BEP dollars from Washington County or any BEP dollars from Johnson City.”

When the bill was brought before the full House, the initial vote count was deadlocked at 49-49, and Speaker Glen Casada kept the vote open for 40 minutes until Rep. Jason Zachary, R-Knoxville, finally changed his vote from “no” to “yes,” providing just enough votes for the bill to pass.

“We are just giving folks enough time to consider whether their vote is exactly what they want it to be on the board,” House Majority Leaders William Lamberth, told The Tennessean shortly after the vote.

Speaking to reporters on the House floor, Zachary said he was assured by House leadership that schools in his Knox County district would be removed from the educational savings account, or voucher program.

“I told leadership, I made it very clear to the governor that unless this was streamlined where Knox County was removed and held harmless that I couldn’t support the bill,” Zachary said.

“And I was assured on the House side (that) Knox County will be taken out. Knox County will be held harmless, and Knox County will have some resources to be able to take care of the things that need to be taken care of with our teachers and our raises.”

The version of the voucher program passed on Tuesday would give parents in Davidson, Shelby, Hamilton and Knox counties an average of $7,300 in public funds to use for their children’s private school expenses, such as tuition, uniforms and computers. School districts in those four counties were targeted for the program because of historically performing among the worst in the state.

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