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The Honorable Rep. Cameron Sexton
Speaker of the House

The Honorable Rep. William Lamberth
House Majority Leader

The Honorable Rep. Karen Camper
House Minority Leader

The Honorable Rep. Vincent Dixie
House Democratic Caucus Chair

CC: Rep. Debra Moody; Sen. Ferrell Haile

Dear House Leadership and Bill Sponsors,

As a non-profit, non-partisan research and advocacy organization committed to promoting educational justice and improving outcomes for vulnerable Tennessee students from pre-K to post-secondary, we are writing to you today to express our concerns with and opposition to HB0751/SB1158, a bill introduced by Chairman Moody and Senate Speaker Pro Tempore Haile which will be considered on the House floor this evening. As amended, this bill aims to extend school voucher eligibility for Tennessee’s Individual Education Account Program (IEAP) to an additional almost 35,000 Tennessee students, which has the potential to divert these students and an estimated $2 million in public school dollars away from public schools and funnel them to private K-12 institutions.

Two of The Education Trust in Tennessee’s cardinal policy priorities are to close achievement and opportunity gaps in P-12 and beyond and to bolster public education funding and resource equity, foundational to our beliefs that all students deserve to attend a school that provides equitable access to high-quality instruction and academic supports and receives the necessary funding and resources to meet individualized student needs. The amended HB0751/SB1158 seeking to vastly expand the IEAP program stands in direct conflict with the aforementioned aims for public school education in Tennessee for a number of reasons. First, the amendment goes far beyond the original intent of the legislation, broadening eligibility from students specifically with traits of dyslexia to the expansive category of students with “a specific learning disability.” Under this amended eligibility, nearly 35,000 students would have a pathway to exit Tennessee’s public schools, resulting in an increase of students withdrawing from our LEAs and an associated loss of millions of dollars in critical funds to those districts that follow them.

Since disability status is the basis for the voucher eligibility under the IEAP, this expansion would significantly reduce Tennessee’s public school classrooms’ neurodiversity and siphon off students with a documented disability on a dangerous alternative path to private schools beyond the federally-guaranteed protections of the Individual with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Enrollment and participation in the IEAP and similar voucher programs that utilize public funds for private educational expenses requires the forfeiture of key services and protections provided under IDEA, putting thousands of Tennessee’s most vulnerable students at the risk of losing individualized education services or experiencing classroom isolation in conflict with IDEA’s least restrictive environment tenets. According to a federal Government Accountability Office report, as many as 83% of parents of students with disabilities in a voucher, ESA, or “school choice” programs utilizing public education dollars for private schools reported not being aware of the federal rights and protections they are forfeiting. (1)

In sum, school voucher programs such as the IEAP, while masked in the veil of increasing opportunity and supports for vulnerable student groups, in practice actually significantly reduce those students’ federal protections and rights to key educational services, accommodations, and supports that are guaranteed within public schools. By directing students who demonstrate the need for additional educational assistance to private schools – institutions that operate beyond the oversight and accountability measures governed by state and federal education agencies – this legislation represents a grave offense and disservice to families who deserve so much more. The associated loss of public dollars to public schools for the benefit of private institutions that lack rigorous accountability and can legally dodge government mandates to protect and best serve our most vulnerable students with disabilities is an egregious affront to public education. To quote Curtis Decker, longtime Executive Director of the National Disability Rights Network, “Children with disabilities should not be made to choose between attending an underfunded public school and giving up their civil rights to attend a private one. That is an outrageous proposition.” (2)

Student achievement, robust academic support, and productive accountability metrics should be the driving force behind any educational initiative, and the impact of school vouchers such as the IEAP on student success is inconclusive at best. The amended legislation proposed in HB0751/SB1158 would require affected students with disabilities to forgo federal mechanisms set in place to ensure their equitable access to necessary support and interventions in the absence of any meaningful oversight, representing a risk far too great for vulnerable families. For these reasons, we oppose this bill as amended.

1 https://www.gao.gov/assets/gao-18-94.pdf

2 https://thearc.org/blog/advocacy-groups-file-u-s-supreme-court-brief-warning-that-school-vouchers-harm-students-with-disabilities/