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Senate approves Gov. Lee's school vouchers bill

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Posted at 11:03 AM, Apr 25, 2019
and last updated 2019-04-25 17:16:55-04

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF)  — The state Senate has passed Governor Bill Lee’s controversial school vouchers-like bill.

The bill passed Thursday morning in a 20-13 vote after a nearly two-hour debate. The bill differs from the House legislation, which was also approved this week.

The governor's proposed legislation has been transformed into two different bills for the House and Senate. However, majority of lawmakers from the counties the bill is supposed to help still aren't on board.

The education savings accounts proposal is a historic win, that would grant $7,300 to low-income families in Davidson and Shelby Counties only, where schools are under-performing.

The money would be spent in private school tuition.

"There are thousands more students in Memphis and Nashville that desperately need another opportunity," said Senator Bryan Kelsey, R-Germantown.

The program is limited to 5,000 students in the first year. Home-schooled students can participate, and parents must be able to verify their income through pay stubs and tax returns, despite what the House version says.

But critics maintain that all it does is take away tax dollars from already under-funded public schools. Senator Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, argued that if the program is so effective, then more lawmakers would want their districts to be involved.

Some teachers are worried the bill would take away funding from the state's lowest performing public schools.

"You are voting on a statewide program, the only thing that makes this a pilot project is that we changed the name," said Yarbro. "If you believe it would genuinely change the trajectory of lives of the children you represent, you would be offended your county wasn't included but it's the exact opposite."

On Tuesday, the Tennessee House approved the bill after a lengthy delay. At one point, the vote was deadlocked at 49-for and 49-against. Rep. Jason Zachary (R-Knoxville) ended up casting the tie-breaking vote. Rep. Zachary was promised Knox County would be taken out of the house's version of the ESA vote in exchange for changing his 'no' vote on the program to a 'yes'.

The Senate's version conflicts with what House members passed earlier this week, which includes immigration status verification and applies to the state's top four most populated counties. That means the two chambers will form a joint panel known as a "conference committee" to find a solution.

Those opposed to the bill are also concerned families won't send their kids to public schools – essentially hurting the public-school system in the long run.

The governor denies incentives were offered for votes.

He couldn't say which of the bills he preferred, but welcomes including more counties.