A bill allowing families to use state dollars to send their children to private schools if their zoned public school goes virtual was approved by the Senate Education Committee on Wednesday, marking a victory for renewed pressure for school vouchers in Tennessee.
Below SB1674, students might be eligible for college savings accounts, a type of school voucher, if their zoned public school did not offer 180 days of in-person instruction due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The bill, sponsored by Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, and Rep. Michael Curcio, R-Dickson, would not take effect until Sept. 1, 2025. Students would be eligible if their district turned to apprenticeship remotely at any time. all three years, starting with the 2022-23 school year.
Bell changed the legislation to remove a provision allowing vouchers in districts that voluntarily imposed mask mandates.
Students zoned for any school in the fulfillment school district, the state’s school turnaround network, would also be eligible for a voucher under the bill.
Bell said it is the parents’ choice and responsibility “to choose a school that will meet their child’s needs.”
“We know that in-person learning is the most effective way to educate a child, to educate a student,” Bell said during the committee meeting Wednesday afternoon.
Tennessee already requires school districts and charter schools to provide students with 180 days of “quality education” for at least 6.5 hours a day, under state law.
School districts are also no longer allowed to pivot entire districts to virtual or distance learning. Instead, districts must seek approval from the Tennessee Department of Education for classrooms or individual schools to temporarily switch to remote learning.
Bell accused districts that did not offer in-person learning of “not taking their responsibilities seriously.”
“We’re doing this to make sure schools, the public school system responsible for educating the vast majority of students in our state, take this job seriously,” Bell said.
“We can look back on what’s happened in the last two years here in the state of Tennessee and we know there were a few districts – there were maybe three – that for some reason, simply decided not to fulfill the purpose for which they were created, and that is to educate our children.”
Exemption process in place for virtual learning
At the height of the pandemic, the state’s largest school districts — Shelby County Schools and Nashville Metro Public Schools — spent the majority of the 2021-22 school year closed to learning in no one, but none of the districts requested waivers this school year to hold virtual classes.
Since Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn signed into law the waiver process in August 2021, 94 applications have been submitted as of 4 p.m. Wednesday, department spokesperson Brian Blackley said in an email. Of these 94 applications, 86 were approved, two were denied, one was partially approved and five were deemed ineligible.
Districts have the option of using storage days to close due to COVID-19 surges or staffing shortages or by adding additional days to the school year.
Schools in Cleveland City, which is in the Bell District, were closed Wednesday after more than 95 staff reported cases of COVID-19, including Superintendent Russell Dyer.
Bell said he was confident the district would make up for the missed days.
Charlie Bufalino, assistant commissioner for political and legislative affairs for the state Department of Education, told lawmakers Wednesday that the waiver process may not even be an option for school districts in future school years. Instead, it was always intended for use in “limited circumstances”, he said.
New push for the good ones
The renewed push for school choice comes as the state is sued over a previous college savings account program.
In 2019, Governor Bill Lee proposed an education savings account program that only applied to Shelby and Davidson counties.
The lawsuit hinges on whether the law is unconstitutional, largely because of how it only targets two counties without their contribution to the program.
The state insists the legislature had the power to pass the bill, but Davidson County Chancellor Ann Martin struck down the law in May 2020 on the grounds that it violated a section of the constitution of the state known as the “domicile rule”, as the law only applied to the two counties. The case is pending in the Tennessee Supreme Court.
Sen. Raumesh Akbari, D-Memphis, who voted against the new bill on Wednesday, asked Bell if its intention in sponsoring the current legislation was to address the autonomy aspect of the prior law.
Bell said no. He said he was unsure what impact the bill might have on ongoing litigation or whether it would also end up in court.
Sen. Joey Hensley, R-Hohenwald, also voted against the bill on Wednesday. Hensley said lawmakers need to figure out how to compel districts to now offer 180 days of in-person learning.
Sen. Rusty Crowe, R-Johnson City, abstained in the vote, citing concerns he’s heard from constituents and school board members, asking him to continue directing public funds to schools public.
“I want to make sure our parents have ultimate control and our kids are in school, but at the same time I want to keep my word to my school boards back home,” Crowe said. “I know the bill is going to pass through this committee and will probably eventually get tabled.”
The bill now heads to the Senate floor. The House has yet to consider the bill, which will first go through the House Education Investigative Subcommittee.
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Meghan Mangrum covers education for the USA TODAY Network – Tennessee. Contact her at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.