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‘We’re trying to throw the whole freaking system in the trash’

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — The lead sponsor pushing school vouchers in the Tennessee state House says his goal with Tennessee’s public education system is to “throw the whole freaking system in the trash,” according to a recording obtained by NewsChannel 5.

Rep. Scott Cepicky, R-Culleoka, whose children attend a private religious school in Columbia, said he believes that “blow[ing] it all back up” is the only way to “fix” the state’s public schools, which he describes as “terrible.”

That recording came from a meeting last month between the Maury County Republican and homeschool families who fear that the voucher plan — sending taxpayer dollars to Tennessee’s private schools — will ultimately lead to more regulation of their activities.

“Not only do we have to protect homeschoolers like you want me to — and I have to protect the private schools, their autonomy — I’m still stuck with a system that we would all agree is terrible,” Cepicky told the homeschool advocates.

The three-term lawmaker said he had spent the last six years taking “little bitty nibbles” at the state’s public education system to try to “fix” it, but he felt he had not accomplished much through such tactics.

“We’re trying to just throw the whole freaking system in the trash at one time and just blow it all back up,” Cepicky said.

Asked about the budget implications of his voucher plan, Cepicky insisted, “We’re going to wind up taking money from public schools because the kids are not going to be there.”

Listen to excerpt below:

Reached late Saturday afternoon via text, Cepicky declined to comment.

Instead, House Republican Caucus spokesperson Jennifer Easton responded on his behalf, attempting to persuade NewsChannel 5 to delay publishing a story about the recording until Cepicky chose to make himself available for a formal on-camera interview.

NewsChannel 5 Investigates offered Easton the option of providing a written statement to clarify Cepicky’s statements, but she never responded to that option.

Release of the recording comes as Senate and House committees are expected to enter a critical do-or-die moment this week for Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee’s school voucher proposal.

A vote could come around midday today in the Senate Finance Committee.

As originally proposed by Lee, the voucher plan would provide $7,075 annually for parents to use to pay for private schooling.

To make vouchers more palatable for reluctant lawmakers, the House version of the bill includes proposals sought by public school advocates, reducing standardized testing, phasing out the failed Achievement School District that had taken over troubled schools, and providing additional funding for medical insurance for teachers and staff.

Cepicky was asked by the homeschool advocates whether he could just remove school vouchers from his bill.

“We’ll never get the good stuff for the public schools,” he answered. “It will not happen because I’ve been trying to get it for six years. We’re using leverage to not only get what the governor wants, use that ambition to get the fix for our public schools.”

It’s not clear how such provisions would fundamentally “fix” a school system that Cepicky says is “terrible.”

The recording appears to have been made with the knowledge of Cepicky who, at one point, noted that he was stopping his own recording of the meeting.

In the 90-minute session, the incumbent Republican provides a candid analysis of the competing proposals drafted by the governor, the Senate and the House.

Among his observations:

House leaders have deliberately structured their proposal to try to skirt federal court rulings that even undocumented immigrant children are entitled to receive a public education.

Unlike the Senate version, the House version is not tied to Tennessee’s school funding formula, known as the Tennessee Investment in Student Achievement (TISA) plan.

 “We’re creating a state benefit that now I can say who can and cannot [be] eligible for the benefit,” Cepicky said.

“Sometimes the enemy becomes your friend — because I’m using a loophole that the government has created on benefits to protect keeping out non-U.S. citizens.”

The House proposal provides school vouchers only to “citizens,” likely meaning that even unnaturalized children who are in the country legally and whose families are productive members of society would not be eligible for the “benefit.”

Listen to excerpt below:

House leaders worry that, like in other states, the school voucher plans prepared by the governor and the Senate could be budget busters.

“The myriad of pitfalls of school choice across this country is well documented,” Cepicky said.

“Those two other ones are train wrecks. They are fraught with all the pitfalls that have happened across the country…. If school choice is going to pass, it cannot be the governor’s or the Senate’s version.

“It cannot — or else, guess what, it will be a billion dollars in two years.”

All three plans provide for 20,000 school voucher scholarships in 2024-2025 school year, but the governor and Senate create a universal school voucher plan in the second year, subject to state funding.

Under the House plan, the program could only grow by 20 percent each year.

Listen to excerpt below:

Despite promises that the measure will provide parents with “school choice,” Cepicky admits that vouchers will do little to immediately allow substantial numbers of public school students to move into private schools.

“We figured across the state of Tennessee, by kind of doing an informal poll, we think there’s a maximum of three-to-four thousand open seats in private schools across the state. That’s it.” In his own area, “there’s no capacity in Maury County. They are stuck.”

Critics have argued that the voucher plan will offer “welfare” to families who can already afford private schools. Half of the first round of school vouchers would be awarded based on need – a threshold set by the House plan at $124,800 or less for a family of four.

Listen to excerpt below:

The House proposal faces fierce opposition from longtime education reform advocates who see testing as a critical tool for measuring student progress.

Under that proposal, private school children receiving taxpayer funds would not be subject to the same testing required for those enrolled in public schools. It also reduces some testing requirements for public school students.

Such testing protocols came after years of lobbying from groups such as the State Collaborative on Reforming Education (SCORE).

“SCORE and all the lobbyists HATE the testing part of our bill – not dislike – yelling at me in my office, hating this part,” Cepicky said.

He added, “Ok, so I know I am on the right path then.”

Politically, Gov. Bill Lee wants a “universal school choice” plan to pass – regardless of what it looks like.

Families would be able to apply for what likely would initially be a limited number of scholarships, which would be doled out under the provisions of the new law.

“All the governor wants to be say, the major words of ‘universal school choice.’ Because we allow everybody to apply for it, he can utter those words,” Cepicky said.

Asked why that initiative was so important to Lee, the Republican lawmaker noted that it is an effort being pushed by the Republican Governors Association.

Lee is the current RGA chair.

“Of all the states around us, who hasn’t passed school choice yet?” Cepicky asked.

Listen to excerpt below:

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REVEALED: Secret recording shows school voucher proponent talking of ‘public hangings’

REVEALED: Secret recording shows pressure on Republican lawmakers to vote for school vouchers

REVEALED: Republican lawmaker warns of billionaire influence


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