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Tennessee unveils voucher rules, prepping for 2020 rollout

By KIMBERLEE KRUESISeptember 13, 2019

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Top education officials say they are preparing to implement Tennessee’s newly enacted voucher law a full year ahead of schedule while unveiling key requirements surrounding the program.

Earlier this year, Republican Gov. Bill Lee signed off on legislation that diverts tax dollars to private education and allows participating families to receive debit cards up to $7,300 in state education money each year. Known as education savings accounts, the program would apply only to the state’s largest school districts — Nashville metro and Shelby County, the areas with the lowest performing schools.

Lee has since expressed support of implementing the program ahead of the originally scheduled 2021-2022 school year and then instructed the education department to ensure the voucher expansion would be ready by next year. However, funding for the program has not yet been secured.

The agency confirmed it had the 2020-2021 school year in mind while recently submitting administrative rules — which provide the guidelines to how the state will enforce the law — to be approved by the State Board of Education.

“The program provides options for parents of eligible students to choose the educational opportunities that best meet the individual needs of their child by giving them direct access to state and local public education funds,” the department wrote to the board. “The program is currently planned for implementation for the 2020-2021 school year.”

Along with providing a clear timeline for the voucher program, the department’s rules give more insight to how the state will handle the law’s more contentious portions.

For example, families interested in participating must provide federal income tax returns showing they do not exceed twice the federal income eligibility for free school lunch, or provide proof they can qualify for federal assistance.

Yet the department stipulates that it may “require additional information” to verify household income without specifying what those documents might be. The income requirements do not specify if families must disclose assets.

Income verification quickly became one of the law’s most fought about aspect during the 2019 legislative session, with American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee and the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition arguing the law would exclude families who are in the U.S. illegally from getting their children vouchers. Critics say this could cause discrimination, but no legal challenge has been filed.

Other rules being proposed by the department would:

— Require participating private schools to agree they won’t discriminate against participating ESA students on the basis of race, color or national origin. There is no such requirement on the basis of sex, religion or disability.

— Ensure families have pre-approval for tuition, computer hardware, education therapy services and other specialized afterschool education programs before making such purchases.

— A provision allowing the state to contract out some or all portions of the voucher program to a private contractor.

— Establish both an online and telephone anonymous fraud reporting service.

The rules will now be reviewed by the state board, with the first meeting taking place on Sept. 18.

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