- Republican Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee endorsed a plan to expand a three-county school voucher program Tuesday.
- Lee expressed interest in expanding the program, currently open to low-income students in Davidson, Hamilton and Shelby counties — home to Nashville, Chattanooga and Memphis, respectively — to cover all income levels and be implemented statewide.
- "Tennessee’s Education Freedom Scholarships will empower parents with the freedom to choose the right education for their child, while also giving them a say in how their taxpayer dollars are invested," Lee posited in a news release.
Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee on Tuesday backed a plan to expand beyond a three-county school voucher program for low-income kids by offering public money for private schooling statewide, regardless of family income.
State lawmakers narrowly approved the so-called education savings accounts initiative for the three counties in 2019. It awards eligible families around $8,100 in public tax dollars to help cover private school tuition and other preapproved expenses. The newest initiative will also need the approval of the state Legislature, where Republicans have supermajorities in both chambers.
In 2019, lawmakers agreed in a tight vote to enact the original program after receiving assurances that it would only apply to Davidson and Shelby counties, both Democratic strongholds in Tennessee. Nashville, Memphis and civil rights leaders sued to stop the program, which was tied up in the courts and only implemented starting in the summer of 2022 after the Tennessee Supreme Court cleared a key legal obstacle.
The new program Lee is proposing would make 20,000 education scholarships available next year, with half going to students who are lower income, disabled or otherwise able to participate in the current program. The remaining 10,000 would be available to any student entitled to attend a public school.
"Tennessee’s Education Freedom Scholarships will empower parents with the freedom to choose the right education for their child, while also giving them a say in how their taxpayer dollars are invested," the governor said in a news release.
Beginning with the 2025-2026 school year, Lee is proposing universal eligibility for any student entitled to attend a public school. If applications exceed available scholarship money, priority will go to lower income, public-school and returning scholarship students.
Republican Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee responds to questions during a news conference Tuesday, April 11, 2023, in Nashville, Tennessee. (AP Photo/George Walker IV)
Democrats, professional teacher groups and other opponents of the plan argued that expanding the program would further undercut public schools in Tennessee.
"Taking taxpayer dollars to fund private school tuition statewide would divert much-needed resources from our already underfunded public schools and threaten the strength of our Tennessee communities. Fewer students and less funding will put beloved neighborhood schools at risk for closure," Tennessee Education Association President Tanya Coats said in a news release.
Vouchers have been a key part of Lee's agenda. During his first State of the State address in 2019, Lee claimed that the educational savings accounts would strengthen public schools by creating competition and therefore providing them an incentive to improve. School choice also was touted as a top issue when Lee was on the campaign trail. Once in office, Lee appointed pro-voucher members to top adviser positions.
Tennessee had an education savings account program previously, but it was only available for children with certain disabilities.
Under the current law, participating families 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.
Tennessee consistently ranks low on per-student spending for public schools. A report from the National Education Association ranked Tennessee as 38th among the 50 states for the 2020-2021 school year. That was before a $1 billion investment last year, but state spending is still on the low end.
Students first participated in the voucher program last school year. Because it was held up in the courts, the state had little time to recruit students and schools for the program and only around 400 students were approved. Since then, lawmakers have added Hamilton County, home to Chattanooga, as a third county where the vouchers can be used.
The number of students approved for the vouchers increased to 2,172 this year, Education Commissioner Lizzette Reynolds told the governor at a recent budget hearing.
There is little public data on how the first group of students has performed academically. However, voucher students at the Collegiate School of Memphis showed "significant evidence that students made less growth than expected" — the lowest measure, showing negative growth — when comparing their performance on the standardized TCAP test in math and English to previous years.