Gov. Lee's ESA bill passes Tennessee House in narrow floor vote

Posted at 7:59 AM, Apr 23, 2019

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — Governor Bill Lee’s school vouchers bill has passed the Tennessee House after a delayed floor vote. The legislation must still pass the state Senate.

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.

The Senate is set to vote on the legislation on Thursday.

The school voucher proposal would give public money to families to send their children to schools of their choice. However, some teachers are worried the bill would take away funding from the state's lowest performing public schools.

There are two different versions of the bill between the state house and senate. The house's version of the bill would give all counties access to ESAs, though the four largest counties, Davidson, Shelby, Hamilton and Knox, would all have reduce funding to public schools over the three first years the program is started.

Representative 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'.

"I told leadership, I was very clear with the governor, unless this was streamlined, where Knox County was removed and held harmless, then I couldn't support the bill," said Zachary. "I was assured, that on the house side, Knox County will be taken out. Knox County will be held harmless and Knox County will have some resources to take care of the things that need to be taken care of with our teachers and our raises."

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.

Of the passing of the bill, Tennessee Democratic Party Chair Mary Mancini said:

"There’s a deep-rooted problem in our state legislature when the Republican governor and speaker of the house are able to rig the vote, silence dissenting voices, and use public schools and teachers as pawns to get their voucher bill passed in Tennessee.

A handful of Tennessee House Republicans, who were on the fence about vouchers, were offered money for pork projects in their districts in exchange for their yes vote. In other words, they threw public school students and teachers under the bus so they can run home and claim victory in a press release while public schools suffer for decades because of their spineless decision.

"Vouchers have not succeeded in any other state. To have them in Tennessee is a travesty and illustrates that Republicans are willing to abandon the absolute duty our government has to ensure a high-quality public education for every child in Tennessee."

On Monday, teachers, parents and students came to state capitol to protest the plan with a New Orleans-style funeral.