NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — 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.
The initiative will need the approval of the state Legislature. Republicans have supermajorities in both chambers, but they barely passed the current voucher program in 2019. Some lawmakers only voted for it after receiving assurances that it would only apply to Davidson and Shelby counties, both Democratic strongholds.
Nashville, Memphis and civil rights leaders sued to stop the so-called education savings accounts initiative, which was tied up in the courts until the summer of 2022, after the Tennessee Supreme Court cleared a key legal obstacle.
The current program awards eligible families around $8,100 in public tax dollars to help cover private school tuition and other preapproved expenses for up to 5,000 low-income or disabled students.
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.
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 would go to lower income, public-school and returning scholarship students.
“There is no question that today is the time that we need to allow parents who know best what’s best for their child as it relates to education, that we need to give those parents choices," Lee said at a Tuesday presentation.
Also speaking was Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who touted what she said was a conservative education revolution happening around the country. Sanders signed off on a school voucher proposal in her state in March.
“COVID lockdowns erased years of progress in math and reading," Sanders said. "Some schools now seem more interested in teaching the newest politically correct fad than basic writing and arithmetic. Where the education establishment has failed, conservatives are picking up the pieces.”
The announcement drew praise from organizations that specialize in school choice policies and groups involved in broader free market advocacy, including the local Americans for Prosperity chapter.
Democrats, professional teacher groups and other opponents of the plan argued that expanding the program will 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.
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, 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. That is still less than half the 5,000 available slots. The low uptake stands in contrast to similar programs in many other states where demand is outstripping availability.
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.