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Tennessee statewide ESA bill will not proceed this year

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(The Center Square) – Tennessee’s statewide educational savings account bill will not move forward, Gov. Bill Lee said in a statement on Monday morning.

The bill had been held in the Senate and House Finance, Ways and Means committees and subcommittees while the two bodies worked to discuss details of the bill and gather support.

But Lee said that the bill will have to wait another year.

“I am extremely disappointed for the families who will have to wait yet another year for the freedom to choose the right education for their child, especially when there is broad agreement that now is the time to bring universal school choice to Tennessee,” Lee said in an early Monday statement. “While we made tremendous progress, unfortunately it has become clear that there is not a pathway for the bill during this legislative session.”

Lee’s announcement came a week after the Tennessee Journal reported the bill was dead for this session.

“While we are disappointed that families will have to wait yet another year for educational freedom, we are going to keep working until education savings accounts are available for all Tennesseans,” said Americans for Prosperity Tennessee State Director Tori Venable. “Through this campaign our grassroots team has knocked over 85,700 doors. We’ve heard from families across the state who want more options and more control over their children’s education.”

The bills each had a significant number of ESAs worth $7,075 the first year to be spent by students and families on school-related expenses such as private school tuition.

Both had 20,000 ESAs statewide starting in the fall with eligibility determined on some level by income.

“We are deeply disappointed that at a time when school choice legislation is being passed across the country and support among voters is at an all-time high, the Tennessee legislature could not create a path forward on the ESA bill,” said Beacon Center CEO Justin Owen. “While opponents of education freedom continue to focus on adults, tens of thousands of children will suffer as a result. These families deserve options, and they deserve them now, not next year or the one after that. That said, this fight is not over, and the legislators who opposed educational options for children across the state are mistaken if they think they’ve won.”

Overall, the Senate Education Freedom Scholarship program is estimated to cost nearly $100,000 in the first year and then more than $300,000 annually in subsequent years.

A major difference in the Senate version was to allow students to use the ESAs to enroll in a public school outside their home district as well.

“School choice matters,” Venable said. “Parents, not the government, will always know what is best for their children. Over the past few years, we have made incredible progress securing ESAs for students stuck in the worst performing schools. Still, too many children are being left behind, and we will not stop fighting for all students until we see legislation passed.

“How long must our kids wait?”

The estimated impact on transferred public school funding was estimated at $48.5 million in the first year and more than $107 million in the years that followed.

Students in a pilot educational savings account program in three counties are receiving $9,800 – the average statewide funding per public school student – this year. The pilot is taking place in Davidson, Shelby and Hamilton counties.

The Tennessee Department of Education said that 90% of parents surveyed are extremely satisfied or very satisfied with the program.