If Gov. Bill Lee’s debit-card voucher plan passes, it will be about three years before the feces hits the oscillating cooler. Coincidentally, that is when Lee will be running for a second term. Tennessee hasn’t had a one-term governor since Ray Blanton, in 1980, but that could change.
The five counties whose school systems will be affected (so far) contain the largest population centers in the state. Thus, Lee is betting his second term on vouchers being free of scandal and not visibly damaging to public education. It’s a risky bet and a more experienced politician might hesitate. But Lee is surrounded by ideologues, and he doesn’t fully understand the anger this will engender.
Well, what could go wrong?
- The first thing that will happen is the program will be expanded to many more school systems, if not to all of them. Get ready, rural legislators.
- There is a fast one being pulled on the new members who don’t understand how this works. Let me “’splain it,” as Ricky Ricardo might say. Hang on, we are about to go off into the weeds here. The bill contains language asking for identification that will allow illegal alien children to be identified. If most of the Republicans knew that the vouchers would go to illegal aliens there is no way they would vote for the bill. So the language has to stay in there or it doesn’t pass. But federal law is clear. You can’t ask the immigration status of a child; you are to educate all the children. A federal judge will immediately strike down this language in the bill. So why are the governor and House Speaker Glen Casada twisting so many arms to pass it?The bill also includes what is known as a severability clause. That means that if one portion of a law is declared unconstitutional the rest of the law is unchanged. So that language will be thrown out of the law and vouchers can then be issued to illegal aliens. But the program will be in place. Regardless of whether you agree or not, the fact remains that once voters in your district find out money is taken from their school system to provide private education for illegals they will be hopping mad. The people pushing this bill know that; it’s why the severability clause is in there. They are hoping everybody will just blame some old liberal federal judge and their role in this little drama remains hidden.
- What else might be revealed over the next three years? In Arizona, where they had a similar program until the voters struck it down, 75 percent of the students in the program were middle class. This is not a program to target students in failing schools. This is a giveaway to shift public-school children to private schools, and if it passes we will discover within a couple of years that the children in failing schools are still where they were. (Virtually every school child in Knox County is eligible for a debit card. How is this a program designed to help poor kids get ahead?) An audit in Arizona revealed $700,000 spent wrongfully – in one year. In two or three years, in time for the 2022 election, we should be due an audit revealing how much corruption has occurred in Tennessee, giving parents $7,300 per child.
Casada is twisting arms to whip enough votes to pass the bill this week. That odd sound you hear in the Capitol is the popping sound of knees buckling. The knees of legislators who ran on a platform of supporting public education and are now voting at the direction of leadership instead of voting for what the district wants.
What puzzles me is that Lee and Casada are both from Williamson County. Every elected body in the county, including two school boards, has come out in opposition.
The best analogy I can come up with to the present situation is the state income tax fight in 2002; I was there and watched it. The leadership bullied members to vote for it even though the issue was toxic back in their districts. (Remember “Do the Right Thing,” the leadership slogan?) So a lot of House members voted for it, including some Republicans. These Republicans lost their seats. And the Senate sat still, and after the House bill failed they said whew! And they didn’t have to go on record.
The voucher/debit-card bill will likely come to a vote on the House floor on Thursday. I doubt the Senate will vote on the bill before then. It may not come out of Senate Finance today (Tuesday). The committee could kill it, or more likely, postpone it a week to see what the House does. And when it fails in the House the senators get a free ride on the issue while House members who voted for it will have to go home and explain why.
The Senate bill has been changed from the House version, and sometimes when there is a divergence in the two versions it results in gridlock – a situation devoutly to be wished.
The safe play for House members is to vote your district. The voters don’t care if the Speaker gets mad enough to give you a bad parking space.