Nov 29, 2023 - News

Tennessee Gov. Lee launches school voucher expansion effort

Illustration of an apple with a ticket voucher for a leaf.

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

Any Tennessee parent could use state money to send their kids to private school under Gov. Bill Lee's new plan for universal school vouchers.

Why it matters: The Education Freedom Scholarship Act, announced Tuesday, will be a top priority for the Lee administration during the 2024 legislative session. Lawmakers and advocacy groups are already lining up for and against the measure, which would have a monumental impact on K-12 education in Tennessee.

By the numbers: The plan would allow some 20,000 students to get about $7,075 each for private school tuition or home schooling during the 2024-25 academic year. That adds up to more than $141 million in state funding.

  • Half of those students would have to meet requirements for family income or other factors in the first year. Income requirements would fall away in 2025-26, opening all 20,000 vouchers up for universal eligibility — though lower-income families would get priority if demand exceeds supply.
  • Lee's website touting his plan says additional slots would be added over time "until all Tennessee students who desire a scholarship are awarded one."

Flashback: Lee's administration pushed for the creation of a voucher program during his first days in office in 2019. It passed the legislature by one vote, but only after lawmakers amended it to apply in just Davidson and Shelby counties.

  • Hamilton County was added to the program earlier this year.

What he's saying: "For many, many years, I've hoped for this day and this opportunity for the children of this state," Lee said Tuesday at a ceremony kickstarting his universal voucher campaign, where he was flanked by leading Republican lawmakers and Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders.

  • Lee and others said that giving Tennessee parents the choice to send their children to private school would improve overall student outcomes.
  • Parents attending the event said vouchers had enabled their children to thrive academically.

Between the lines: Sanders, who pushed universal vouchers in her state, cheered Lee on and framed the effort as part of a "conservative education revolution."

  • "It is time for the failed status quo to end," she said.

The Beacon Center, a conservative-leaning think tank that has backed voucher expansion, says its polling shows the issue has bipartisan support in Tennessee.

  • "Parents everywhere deserve true educational freedom, and Tennesseans across the political spectrum agree," CEO Justin Owen said in a statement.

Yes, but: Democratic lawmakers were fiercely critical of the effort, which they called a "scam" that would help wealthy families get a state-funded discount on private school.

  • They said they were already working to build bipartisan opposition to the plan and were reaching out to Republicans who opposed vouchers in 2019.
  • The Democrats also pointed to a Tennessean analysis that found voucher students underperformed their public school peers on standardized testing in 2022-23.

Nashville school board chairperson Rachael Anne Elrod blasted voucher expansion as "moral and fiscal malpractice for Tennessee to destabilize public education."

  • "Vouchers will siphon off millions of dollars from our already historically underfunded public schools while providing subpar results for Tennessee's students and the public at large."
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