ESA Voucher Bill— What You Need to Know.

Image result for mama bear imagesOn Wednesday morning at 8:00 am sharp, the House Education Committee is supposed to hear the House Voucher Bill (HB939) but you know how those politicians are… For all we know, they just might roll this bill for more time to intimidate the freshmen legislators.

Now, if you click on that bill link, all you are going to find is a caption bill. Governor Lee has complained that people are misunderstanding his bill and spreading inaccurate information. Well, Bill Lee, or should we call you, Bull Lee, these things happen when information is withheld and the details of a bill are not shared until the last minute.

We wonder if anyone truly understands the bill including the Governor himself….

According to TNJ on the Hill, Rep. Scott Cepicky (R-Columbia), a member of the House Education Committee scheduled to vote on the bill this week, said in a Facebook post that “because of the risk of fraud, as seen in other states with Educational Savings Accounts, homeschooling is not allowed in this bill.” But the Governor said last week when reporters asked him whether home-schooling would qualify for the ESAs that “If a family is in the district that qualifies, and they are currently in a public school, then they would qualify for an ESA.”

At a Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce luncheon, Lee told the crowd, there’s “a lot of misunderstanding about it” and “I encourage you to look deeper.”​

Oh, we will…

Basically, an ESA Voucher is different than a normal voucher because instead of funding private schools, ESAs come in the form of gift cards to parents who withdraw their children from public education. Momma Bears has retained a copy of the proposed amendment to the caption bill that has all the nitty-gritty details.

We have also read Knox County School Board member, Jennifer Owen’s annotated copy of the ESA voucher amendment. You can read it too by clicking here. And Tennessee Education Reports lists some key facts from the Tennessee School Board Association TSBA in its article here.

But we are going to break it down for you Momma Bear style. We’ll start with a little Q & A then tell you what the impact will be for your kids and your neighborhood schools.

Q & A on the Proposed ESA Voucher Program:

Who is eligible to receive ESA Voucher funds?
Any parent or adult student that

  1. lives in a school district where three or more schools are among the bottom 10% of schools                       AND
  2. has a child that qualifies for Free or Reduced Lunch under direct certification in 42 USC 1758(b)(4)   OR is a member of a household that annual income for the previous year does not exceed 200% of federal income eligibility guidelines for free and reduced lunch 
  3. signs away all their rights to public education

So basically, anyone whose child is taken out of public schools that receives a free/reduced lunch OR anyone who makes an income of less than $78,922 for a family of three; $95,276 for a family of four, $111,630 for a family of five AND lives in one of the following school systems: Knox County, Hamilton County, Metro Nashville, Shelby County, Jackson-Madison County, or state-run Achievement School District.

Does that include illegal aliens? 
Yes… Here is what the Federation for American Immigration Reform (they support the wall) had to say about the bill: Governor Bill Lee campaign ad asked “Why can’t politicians stop illegal immigration?” and answered, “As a businessman, it seems pretty clear to me. It’s about incentives. Driver’s licenses and free tuition for illegal aliens, lawless sanctuary cities. All policies that would make Tennessee a magnet for illegal immigration. I will oppose every one of them as governor.” Despite his promise to dry up incentives attracting illegal aliens to the United States, Governor Lee’s Education Savings Plan will inevitably provide school vouchers for illegal aliens. Vouchers use taxpayer funds and the Plyler holding discourages school systems from asking whether students are illegally in the U.S. Therefore, taxpayer monies can and will be provided for vouchers for illegal aliens.

What can parents buy with their ESA Voucher money?
Parents or adult students may spend ESA Voucher funds on any or all of the following items:

  • Tuition or fees at a participating school
  • Textbooks required by a participating school;
  • Tutoring services provided by a tutor or tutoring facility that meets the requirements established by the department and the state board
  • Payment for purchase of curriculum, including any supplemental materials or instruments required by the curriculum. As used in this subdivision, “curriculum” means instructional educational materials for an academic course of study
  • Fees for transportation to and from a participating school or educational provider paid to a fee-for-service transportation provider
  • Tuition and fees for an eligible nonpublic online learning program or course that meets the requirements set by the department and the state board
  • Fees for early postsecondary opportunity courses and examinations required for college admission
  • Services provided under a contract with a public school, including individual classes or extracurricular programs
  • Computer hardware or other technological devices approved by the department, if the computer hardware or other technological device is used for the student’s educational needs
  • School uniforms, if required by a participating school
  • Tuition and fees for summer education programs and specialized afterschool education programs, which do not include afterschool childcare
  • Tuition and fees for eligible postsecondary institution
  • Contributions to a Tennessee state-sponsored college savings educational investment trust account established pursuant to chapter 7, part 8 of this title and § 529 of the Internal Revenue Code (26 U.S.C. § 529), in accordance with state and federal law and all relevant rules, regulations, notices, and interpretations by the United States department of the treasury, including interpretations of the Internal Revenue Code; provided, however, that the contributions and earnings shall not be used for elementary or secondary educational expenses
  • Educational therapy services provided by therapists that meet the requirements established by the department and the state board
  • Fees for the management of the ESA by a private or non-profit financial management organization, as approved by the department

Can the ESA Voucher be used for homeschool expenses?
The answer is yes. The voucher can be used for tutoring services, cost of curriculum materials, therapy services, and any other costs likely incurred by homeschooling that are listed in the bill as eligible expenses. Sorry to break it to Rep. Cepicky but there are no prohibitions in the bill against homeschooling so it looks like the Governor wins that argument. Not only is there nothing that would exclude homeschooling but in 49-6-2609, the bill specifically mentions home schools. So, there’s that…. 

How often do parents/adult students get money?

How much money do parents/adult students get?
Depends on where you live. The ESA amount will be calculated using the BEP formula for your assigned school district. It will include both state and local school funding.

Are participating private schools limited in the amount of tuition they can charge?
No, private schools can charge the full tuition amount and parents or a third party would be responsible for any amount over and above the voucher amount.

Will I be charged income tax on the ESA Voucher payment?
The bill says, “funds received pursuant to this part do not constitute income of a parent or participating student under title 67, chapter 2 or any other state law.” But you should know that the State of Tennessee still sends a 1099 form to all recipients of the current IEA voucher program just in case the IRS considers it to be taxable income. So, consult your tax attorney.

Will my child have to take TNReady? 
Probably. The bill states that voucher students in Grades 3-11 will have to take the TCAP assessment in Math and English/Language Arts. It is interesting to note that in private schools, the school just has to administer the state assessment to the voucher kids. No other students in the private school will be required to take the state assessment. For kids not in private school, the parents are the ones responsible for ensuring that their child is administered TCAP testing. 

Can I use an ESA Voucher at a religious school?
Yes, the bill specifically mentions that “neither a participating school nor a provider is required to alter its creed, practices, admissions policies, or curriculum in order to accept participating student…”

Is that Constitutional?
We will let the courts decide that if our state representative are legislating a lawsuit. But the language contemplates that there might be some Constitutional challenges so it provides, “If any of this act is challenged as violating either state or federal constitution, then parents of eligible students or parents of participating students shall be permitted to intervene in the lawsuit for the purpose of defending the act’s constitutionality.”

Get Ready to Roar, Momma Bears!!!!

The Tennessee School Board Association has a detailed list of problems with this bill. It seems to be inherently unfair to public school students often requiring more rigor from them while providing less benefits. Students receiving vouchers can bank any unused monies for postsecondary education in a 529 college savings account while of course, public school students receive no such benefit. Then, what happens if the student decides not to attend college, can mom and dad withdraw the money from the college savings account? Can they keep it?

So. Many. Questions.

TSBA also makes some excellent points about the lack of accountability for ESA Voucher students. Unlike public school students that are required to take TNReady testing in four areas: English/Language Arts, math, social studies, and science; the ESA Voucher kids will only test in ELA and math. ESA Voucher high schoolers are also not required to take the EOC (end of course) tests, those horrible on-line tests that crash and destroy an hour of essay of writing leaving our public school kids exasperated. And every single junior in public high schools is required to take the ACT whether they want to go to college or not. No such ACT test is required of the ESA Voucher kids.

Let’s look how this will likely play out in private schools…. This bill will likely segregate private school students into regular tuition paying students and those with voucher cards. Voucher students will have to take TNReady tests while other students do not, which begs the question, will voucher kids get a teach-to-the-test curriculum while regular students get a rich, well rounded curriculum?

And with all the special requirements of testing for voucher kids, would it be easier for a private school system to create a system within a system for the voucher kids? Something like how the Catholic School System in Memphis operates the Jubilee School System for low income students?

Now, let’s look at money— Because that’s really what it’s all about.

This is going to be an expensive and complicated bill to administer. We won’t see the actual fiscal note until the amendment drops tomorrow but we can make some educated guesses that this bill is going to cost a lot of money.

First, a lot of kids could qualify for vouchers under this bill. It includes all the major school districts in Tennessee and the income limits are clearly are in the middle class range. And while there are built-in caps on the number of participating students, there are no safeguards to protect local school systems from the costs of revolving students.

The bill specifically allows students to exit the voucher program and return to public school at anytime. Every time a kid leaves the program, it opens up a space for a new student. But the child exiting the program’s unused benefits rolls back into the program instead of following them back to the public school system. The program will eat up lots of money just by attracting kids to try out vouchers then pushing them out of the program back into public education.

Second, unlike public schools which only require students to be educated until the age of 18, the ESA Voucher Bill allows for students to be eligible for voucher until the age of 22. And after 18, the voucher gift card is payable directly to the student. Momma Bears know how this is going to turn out. Give a teenager $20 then ask him how he spent it…nevermind, we will let the state figure that out. Good luck finding a teenager that will keep up with receipts to send into the state every quarter. Where’s that eye-roll emoji when you need it?

We suspect that language was put in the bill to account for SPED students. But with Shelby County considering a policy of stopping social promotions and holding back second graders who can not read, we could see a flood gate open for students staying in school years well after their 18th birthday. As the Commercial Appeal reports, “It’s unclear how many students would be affected [by the new SCS policy], but nearly three-quarters of third-grade students are currently reading below grade level, according to TNReady testing.”

Third, some “hidden” costs are built into this bill for things like marketing and program administration. There is a provision for a 6% managerial cost to be deducted from the student’s voucher amount. And the bill allows the TDOE to contract with a nonprofit organization to administer some or all of the program. You know what that means…. Schwinn’s TFA buddies are going to get a piece of the pie.

Fourth, this bill creates a student transition fund where the State will award grants to schools districts for the first three fiscal years of the program. The amount of the grant will be “equal to the BEP funds for participating students.”  It goes on to say that the student must have been enrolled in the district for one year prior and the BEP funds are only the state part so school districts would still lose out on local funds.

Ahem…. Teachers want Gov. Lee to know that if there is some state money available, the $200 grant for classroom supplies could sure use a boost. Maybe, spend some of that grant money in the classroom instead of for more state bureaucrats, please.

Now let’s talk Fraud— Because that is the biggest weakness with these voucher programs.

“Reports from across the nation show situations in which private-school officials and parents spent voucher money for items unrelated to education. Cards were used at beauty supply stores, sporting good shops and for computer tech support, in addition to trying to withdraw cash, which was not allowed.”

While the bill promises that only “approved” schools and providers will be the recipients of ESA Voucher monies, its leaves open the all so important details as to what qualifies schools and providers to be approved. That’s asking a lot of constituents to trust appointed officials like Penny Schwinn with her history on unethical contracts to make major decisions on how millions if not, billions of state dollars are spent.

And the only safeguards built into the bill are a fraud hot line and an anonymous reporting system. That’s it, folks. There are NO criminal or civil penalties for abuse. You know what that means??? Schwinn’s TFA buddies won’t have to go to jail for unethical contracts. And parents can take full advantage of free gift cards from the state. If they get caught not complying with the rules, worst thing that happens is their kid goes back to public schools.

Well, we could go on for days….

But, you probably know more about the ESA Voucher bill now than your state legislator. So, go and educate them. Remember to reach out personally to your state representatives and as always ask your friends to help.


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