A state legislator from Maryville said Tuesday that he was strong-armed to vote yes for Gov. Bill Lee’s school vouchers bill and that he was told his district would see more state funding if he supported the measure.
Rep. Bob Ramsey, R-Maryville, voted no on House Bill 939, he said, because it would further erode public schools. The bill passed on a 50-48 vote Tuesday and moves to the Senate floor for action Thursday.
If the Senate and House can’t agree, the proposed legislation goes to conference committee, where state Sen. Art Swann, R-Alcoa, said it could be expanded from applying only to the state’s urban areas to include every Tennessee school district. Swann said his will be a no vote. “We’ve got better things to spend money on,” he said.
Ramsey said in every state that has passed similar legislation, school vouchers have spread from urban centers to rural areas, and that remains one of his greatest fears.
“I would not call it extortion. ... There were no threats. ... Strong-armed is not a bad word for it,” Ramsey said by phone from Nashville. “There were some suggestions there might be benefits to our district if we supported the bill. I was repeatedly contacted to join the effort on the side of supporters ... and told it might enhance allocations of funds in the future.”
Rep. Jerome Moon, R-Maryville, voted for HB 939 but did not return telephone calls to his office and cellphone or answer a text message.
Reached by email, Lee’s press secretary, Laine Arnold, wrote: “None of that (strong-arming) is accurate.” But he would not elaborate.
HB 939 would enact the “Tennessee Education Savings Account Act,” which provides for education savings accounts for eligible students. An average of $7,300 per child would be provided to families of students who are removed from public schools and educated at home or in private institutions.
Ramsey said someone introduces school voucher bills every legislative session.
“It’s an opportunity to send children to private institutions on public funds,” he said. “The net effect diminishes support and structure of public schools.”
Passage of the bill came after it deadlocked 49-49 on Tuesday. Then Knoxville Republican Jason Zachary switched his vote to yes after he told reporters he had received assurances that Knox County would be exempted from the legislation.
The Senate version applies only to Shelby County (Memphis) and Nashville-Davidson County, but opponents of the bill fear Lee’s program could spread throughout the state.
Ginny West Case, who ran unsuccessfully for the Blount County Commission last fall, said she became a candidate in large part because of threats to and underfunding of public education.
“I’m proud Rep. Ramsey voted against it,” Case said. “A voucher system will take away even more money and put it in the hands of people who can afford to send their children to private schools. Public education in our state is not strong as it is.”
House passage of the Tennessee Education Savings Account Act is Lee’s signature achievement since he took office in January.
“Low-income students deserve the same opportunities and we have a bold plan that levels the playing field while also focusing improvement on the lowest-performing school districts,” Lee said in a press release last month.
State Sen. Richard Briggs, R-Knoxville, was one of five Finance Committee members to vote against the Senate companion bill, SB 795, but it passed that body by a 6-5 vote.
“Knox County has magnet schools, and STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) schools, and Farragut High School has 16 to 18 National Merit Scholars each year,” Briggs said. “If a parent here can’t make a choice between 90 schools ... we don’t need this bill.”