NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Gov. Bill Lee said Friday that his newly enacted school voucher law won't go into effect next year if the state isn't ready, adding that he'll know by early 2020 when to begin implementing the program.
However, the Republican governor told reporters he remained confident the state was on track to expand education savings accounts in Tennessee.
"We're hopeful that it will be in place this next cycle and we won't compromise quality if it's not ready for high-quality delivery," Lee said. "The plan is that we will be."
Lawmakers narrowly pushed through the contentious voucher legislation during the 2019 legislative session that specifically stated the rollout would occur by the 2021-22 school year. However, Lee has since instructed his team to start the program earlier if possible.
Since then, education officials have begun working to set up the program that diverts tax dollars to private education and allows participating families to receive debit cards worth up to $7,500 in state money each year.
On Friday, Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn told Lee in a budget hearing that the new voucher program would cost a total of $37.5 million if 5,000 students participated during the first year.
This would require an additional $15.1 million in state funding in next year's budget to cover the cost of the voucher program and to hire 20 additional staffers.
Currently, schools get a certain amount of funding based on student enrollment. The concern had been that under the education savings account program, students who leave public school districts to participate in the voucher program would take that funding with them.
But just before the 2019 session ended, lawmakers agreed to allow participating public schools to continue to be fully reimbursed for losing students. Schwinn's $15.1 million budget request is needed to fully reimburse those participating schools — which are currently limited to the state's largest schools in Nashville metro and Shelby County.
Lee didn't ask any voucher-related questions during Schwinn's budget hearing, but later said he was making sure the plan would be "perfectly rolled out."
To help with that implementation process, education officials have contracted with Nashville-based design firm Circa to handle web development and materials design. The state has hired a part-time contract staffer who will be paid $50,000 over the next few months to help with the project, according to documents recently obtained through a public records request by The Associated Press.
Furthermore, the state has already drafted administrative rules for the program — which provide the guidelines to how the state will enforce the law — but those still need final approval by the State Board of Education.
Nationally, five states have passed laws allowing some sort of education savings accounts: Arizona, Florida, Mississippi, Tennessee and Nevada. The Nevada Supreme Court later ruled the state could not use school dollars to fund the accounts.
A Lenoir City man with four previous DUIs was sentenced to 22 years in prison Friday, Nov. 8, for a 2018 wreck on Topside Road that killed a Maryville woman and injured her brother.
Chad Eric Sheffer, 42, pleaded guilty Oct. 18 in Blount County Circuit Court to charges of aggravated vehicular homicide, vehicular homicide by recklessness and aggravated vehicular assault.
Judge Tammy Harrington on Friday accepted an agreement in sentencing Sheffer to 17 years in prison on the aggravated vehicular homicide charge and five years on the aggravated vehicular assault charge, to run consecutively. A six-year sentence on the vehicular homicide by recklessness charge will run concurrently with those.
He must serve at least 60% of the 17-year term and 30% of the five-year term to be eligible for parole.
He also loses the privilege of driving for 11 years and must pay a $5,000 fine and court costs.
Sheffer will receive credit for the time he has spent in jail since April 2018. He was released on bond for part of the time, but that was revoked when he admitted smoking marijuana.
According to police reports Sheffer had been drinking March 23, 2018, when the pickup truck he was driving traveled into the oncoming lane and hit head-on a car a driven Kristy M. Strickland. She died and her brother Thomas Daniele of Maryville was injured.
Sheffer, the only one not wearing a seat belt according to police reports, also was injured. He had previously been convicted of driving under the influence of an intoxicant four times between 1998 and 2011.
At an earlier hearing multiple witnesses said they smelled alcohol on Sheffer that night. A Tennessee Highway Patrol officer said when asked after the wreck if he had been drinking Sheffer replied, “Yes, too much.”
Harrington accepted the sentencing agreement from Blount County Assistant District Attorney General J. Scott Stuart and Sheffer’s attorney, Assistant Public Defender Shawn Graham, before hearing victim impact statements from Strickland’s family members.
The judge explained to the court that she allowed Strickland’s parents to testify while wearing buttons and T-shirts with the woman’s photo and the message “We Love & Miss You Forever Kristy” because she already had completed the sentencing.
Jodie Sparks described her daughter as “a bright and selfless soul,” the glue that held the family together and a devoted mother to a son with special needs. She told the judge that Strickland created a good morning song just for the boy, Phillip.
“Our love will never be enough to fill the hole in his heart where Kristy should be,” Sparks said of her grandson.
Witnesses had testified at an earlier hearing that the car’s doors were jammed after the accident, and Sparks said her son watched his sister die. “All he could do was scream her name,” she said, telling the judge her son has post-traumatic stress disorder.
Another of Strickland’s brothers, Allen Daniele, told the judge, “I’m Kristy’s big brother, but I looked up to her.”
Her father, Brian Daniele, said she was devoted not only to her son but also five nieces and nephews who often spent time with Strickland.
“The world lost one of its finest people,” he said. “She always put everybody else first.”
While Strickland’s family members were choked with emotion, Sheffer seemed to show no apparent response during their statements.
Harrington told the dozens of defendants in her courtroom that morning that she hoped the family’s statements would resonate with them if they are dealing with drug or alcohol issues.