Apr 23, 2024 - Politics

Tennessee's universal voucher push implodes

Illustration of a lit fuse as the stem of an apple.

Illustration: Lindsey Bailey/Axios

Gov. Bill Lee confirmed his fight to expand school vouchers statewide in Tennessee has ended in defeat, at least for now.

Why it matters: Lee has spent years championing vouchers, which allow families to use state money to pay tuition at private schools. Taking the model statewide was a top priority for 2024.

  • The plan's implosion despite a Republican supermajority shows that an influx of money from pro-voucher groups has not beat back bipartisan skepticism.

Driving the news: Tennessee's House and Senate advanced widely different versions of the plan. The House included extra funding for public school priorities, while the Senate favored a more stripped-down approach.

  • Ultimately, the two chambers couldn't come to a consensus.
  • Multiple outlets reported negotiations had fallen apart last week. Lee acknowledged it in a statement, saying he was "extremely disappointed."

What he's saying: "While we made tremendous progress, unfortunately it has become clear that there is not a pathway for the bill during this legislative session," Lee said.

Flashback: Vouchers were top of mind for the Lee administration from his first days in office in 2019. A measure to create a voucher program passed narrowly that year after it was tailored to apply only in Davidson and Shelby counties.

  • A small-scale expansion to Hamilton County passed last year.
  • Lee announced his plan for a statewide program in November.

Between the lines: Local school leaders from across the state and the political spectrum roundly opposed the universal expansion push, saying it would sap money from public schools.

  • Lee and other proponents said it would give families options for school settings that would best suit their children.

State of play: While lawmakers didn't rally behind a plan for voucher expansion, they did still include $144 million meant to fund statewide vouchers in this year's budget. That money will sit unused.

  • Democratic state Sen. Raumesh Akbari said Monday that "instead of throwing millions into a program that isn't effective," lawmakers should put more money toward public schools.

What's next: Lee's statement said Republican leaders would revive the voucher expansion when they return to work in 2025. The Tennessee Journal noted the political playing field might have changed a bit by then.

  • The Journal reported five House Republicans are retiring this year, while 12 more face primary challengers in August.
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