Home Part of States Newsroom
Education commissioner says voucher students fared poorly on state test


Education commissioner says voucher students fared poorly on state test

Jan 18, 2024 | 6:01 am ET
By Sam Stockard
Education commissioner says voucher students fared poorly on state test
Lizette Reynolds, commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Education, addressing the Senate Education Committee on Jan. 10, 2024. (Screenshot from Senate hearing video.)

Tennessee’s education chief admits students using public money to attend private schools haven’t performed well on achievement tests, raising questions about whether the state should start another voucher program.

Seven months into her administration, Commissioner Lizzette Reynolds told senators last week that Education Savings Account students’ test results “aren’t anything to write home about.” She noted they are required to take the state’s standardized test at the end of the year.

Reynolds, however, added that parents are “happy with this new learning environment for their students.” An advocate for school choice out of Texas and Florida, Reynolds replaced Penny Schwinn as commissioner in July 2023.

Her comments led Senate Minority Leader Raumesh Akbari to say even though parents may be “happy” with the program, their children should be performing as well or better than their peers in public schools.

Senate Minority Leader Akbari, who opposed the ESA program when it was created in 2019, pointed out the state has only a year-and-a-half of data in the pilot program yet is already “talking about expanding it.” 

Just two years into the ESA program after a protracted legal challenge, lawmakers this session will be considering Gov. Bill Lee’s new proposal for statewide Education Freedom Scholarships, a new form of private school vouchers.

Gov. Bill Lee has not been clear on whether students using public funds to attend private school will be subject to the same achievement metrics as public school students.

The state approved 2,727 applications for students in Shelby County, Metro Nashville and Hamilton County school districts to use the Education Savings Account program, which enables qualifying students to use public funds to attend private schools. But only 2,134 students are enrolled in private schools through the pilot program, up from 452 students from Shelby and Metro Nashville in the program’s initial year.

Akbari, a Memphis Democrat, said she would have supported the legislation five years ago if it had proven successful in other states.

“I certainly think we need a few more years of evaluation before expanding the program in Tennessee,” she said in a statement to the Tennessee Lookout.

The proposed private school voucher program will be separate from the ESA program, and the governor has said “accountability” will be part of the bill. But he has not been clear on whether students will have to take the same state achievement test as those in public schools. 

In the proposed voucher program’s first year, 20,000 students could qualify to receive $7,075 annually to enroll in private schools under the governor’s plan. In the second year, the program would be available to every student in the state who qualifies to attend a K-12 public school.

Senate Education Committee Chairman Jon Lundberg said Tuesday he’s not worried about starting a new voucher program even though ESA students’ scores on the state test are weak.

“My quick reply would be let’s take a look at how the kids were doing before that. I think you would find out a lot of those were more than struggling in the situation they were forced to deal with. That it’s a struggle for them to catch up, you bet,” said Lundberg, a Bristol Republican.