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Tennessee Lawmakers Move on Voucher Bills as President Trump Lends Support

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School choice bills, including vouchers, are making their way through the Tennessee legislature as President Donald Trump heads Wednesday to a Nashville rally where he may address the issue at the top of his education agenda.

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School choice has been a dominant theme in Tennessee where the expansion of charter schools has been a major issue in local elections and voucher attempts have stalled in recent years, according to The Tennessean. Because of that, some supporters believe that Trump's support of vouchers may push this year's legislation forward.  

A bill to launch a pilot voucher program in Memphis has already passed key House and Senate committees. A committee vote on the House version of the bill was postponed Tuesday until next week.

Up to 5,000 students could receive vouchers to pay for private schools with first priority going to low-income children who are zoned in schools in the bottom 5 percent on state rankings. See an overview of the program in Chalkbeat Tennessee.

Another larger voucher bill, which would extend to low-income children in bottom-ranking schools statewide, is scheduled to go before a committee on Wednesday. But similar attempts have failed in Tennessee before.

State Rep. Harry Brooks, the Republican sponsor of the Memphis voucher bill, said he believes the smaller nature of his proposal, as well as oversight and the limited five-year pilot, make it more likely to pass this year.

"We're trying to create another option," Brooks told Education Week. "The public, by and large, is interested in some kind of voucher program."

The sponsor of the Senate version of the Memphis bill told The Tennessean that he hopes Trump mentions vouchers during his visit to Nashville.

"He's been a big supporter of school choice and has really pushed this as part of the Republican agenda to reach out to minority voters, and I think that's really important," state Sen. Brian Kelsey, a Republican, told The Tennessean about Trump.

In addition to the voucher proposals, another bill would expand education savings accounts to all public school students, not just those with severe disabilities, according to the Associated Press. At about $7,000 per student per year, the program could cost $71 million for approved education expenses, such as tuition, field trips and tutoring. The bill also is scheduled to be heard in a committee on Wednesday.

Elsewhere in the country, other school choice plans are under discussion:

Texas: A proposal to create education savings accounts has garnered support in the state Senate and from Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick. But the House Public Education Chairman Dan Huberty, a Republican, has called the plan dead, according to the Houston Chronicle. U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas has taken the rare step of writing a letter to all Republican state lawmakers to urge them to support school choice legislation, according to the Texas Tribune.

Nevada: Both Gov. Brian Sandoval and Sen. Scott Hammond, a Republican, are drafting separate bills related to the state's Education Savings Account program, while the now Democratic-led legislature may seek a rollback of the program. Hammond could introduce a bill as early as this week, according to the Las Vegas Review Journal.

Read Education Week's story about the Nevada program and other state bills to watch this year.

For a primer on the different forms of private school choice, watch reporter Arianna Prothero's helpful explainer.

President Donald Trump, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., left, and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos hold cards received from the children in a 4th-grade class during a tour of St. Andrew Catholic School on March 3, in Orlando, Fla. Trump's daughter, Ivanka, and her husband, senior White House adviser Jared Kushner, are at rear.

--Alex Brandon/AP

Contact Sarah Tully at [email protected].

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