Not Going Smoothly

Good morning

Learning what happened in the House  Appropriations Subcommittee on Wednesday, I was reminded of that book title: Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.  From all reports, it WAS a difficult day for the Department of Education (you can watch below).

GOP chairman regrets voting for voucher bill, says program won’t be implemented in 2020

Natalie Allison and Joel Ebert, The TennesseanPublished 3:51 p.m. CT Feb. 12, 2020 | Updated 9:53 a.m. CT Feb. 13, 2020

Implementation of Gov. Bill Lee’s school voucher program may face a hurdle from Republicans after the Tennessee Department of Education fielded critical questions on Wednesday from lawmakers about a new contract, leading one legislator to say he now regrets voting for the controversial measure.

Led by Rep. Matthew Hill, R-Jonesborough and chairman of the House appropriations committee, multiple members of the committee took part in an intense line of questioning regarding the education department’s procurement – without issuing a request for proposal – of a $2.5 million contract with ClassWallet.

The company is set to administer applications and funds being used for the state’s education savings account program, which will provide participating families roughly $7,000 per child to send students to private schools. The program is limited to Memphis and Nashville, where both local governments are currently suing the state over its constitutionality.

While the ESA program was initially set to begin in 2021, Gov. Bill Lee announced in recent months that his administration was moving up the start date to this fall, despite concerns from some lawmakers.

House Republican Caucus Chairman Jeremy Faison, R-Cosby, said questions around how the bill was passed in the legislature and how the Department of Education secured the no-bid contract – for more than the amount approved by lawmakers – were problematic.

“In my core of who I am, I believe in parental choice,” Faison said. “I made the decision to support the legislation.

“Since that day, I have probably regretted that vote more than any vote I’ve taken.”

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No-bid voucher contract with ClassWallet unleashes ire of Tennessee GOP lawmakers

By Marta W. Aldrich 12 February 2020

Lawmakers who oversee the spending of Tennessee taxpayer money blasted the Department of Education Wednesday for its handling of a no-bid contract with ClassWallet, hired for $1.25 million a year to manage the state’s upcoming voucher program.

Commissioner Penny Schwinn and members of her team were grilled for almost two hours over the decision to bypass a competitive bid process to hire the Florida-based company – and for twice the amount budgeted for work this year on Gov. Bill Lee’s education savings account program.

It was the first time that multiple Republican lawmakers aired their frustrations over the GOP-backed voucher program, with one representative expressing regrets for voting for it.

Members of the House appropriations subcommittee also scolded the department for not bringing the contract before the legislature’s Fiscal Review Committee, or even answering that body’s multiple questions and emails before signing the agreement.

“Fiscal Review didn’t find out about this contract grant until Nov. 13 when it was published in Chalkbeat. Do you think that that’s acceptable?” asked Rep. Matthew Hill, the Jonesborough Republican who chairs the panel.
Apologizing for the poor communication, Schwinn referenced the department’s need to move quickly to roll out the program by the 2020-21 school year. The deadline is a year earlier than required by the 2019 law but was ordered last summer by the governor, who said he wanted to provide education choices for families as soon as possible.

“Certainly what we were looking at is when does this grant contract need to be executed so that children can be in seats in August,” the commissioner said.

Other lawmakers were still irked by the decision to speed up the launch.
“When we passed the ESA/voucher bill with many modifications and amendments, it was my understanding that that plan would not go into effect until August of ’21,” said Rep. Patsy Hazlewood, a Republican from Signal Mountain who voted for the legislation. “Who decided and what legislative authority moved the start date back on the legislation that we passed?”

“As commissioner, I am certainly responsible for the decision,” Schwinn answered.

The hearing was often tense as Hill – a vocal voucher supporter during fierce debates last spring – called up officials from the state’s procurement office, the comptroller’s office, and the finance department to address statements by staff for the education department.

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Added to the legislative conflict, the state is being sued over this program:

Shelby County government, Nashville sue state over ‘unconstitutional’ voucher program

Jason Gonzales and Laura Testino, Memphis Commercial Appeal Published 3:06 p.m. CT Feb. 6, 2020 | Updated 4:16 p.m. CT Feb. 6, 2020

Memphis and Nashville are taking on the state government, saying in a new lawsuit that Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee’s Education Savings Account program is unconstitutional.

In a petition filed Thursday in Davidson County chancery court, attorneys for Nashville, Nashville’s school board and Shelby County government argued the law creating the savings accounts put an illegal burden on only two counties. They want a judge to halt the controversial program’s rollout and consider eliminating it permanently.

The new lawsuit argues that because the law mandates policy in only two counties it violates the “home rule” in the state constitution. That rule says any law that affects isolated counties must also require local approval.

“The General Assembly cannot impose its will on only two counties without their approval,” the lawsuit argues. “If the legislature believes that education savings accounts are good policy, it may pass a bill of general application so that all counties share the purported benefits of the program. If the legislature prefers to limit the bill’s application to two counties, it must include a local-approval option and hope the program’s merits will convince the affected counties to choose to participate.

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The Department has been directed to appear before the committee again next week.  We will just have to see how things work out for this program.

Bobbie Patray

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