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Gov pushes private school vouchers for all students statewide

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Gov pushes private school vouchers for all students statewide

Nov 28, 2023 | 5:53 pm ET
By Sam Stockard
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Gov pushes private school vouchers for all students statewide
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Gov. Bill Lee, accompanied by Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, left, at his Tuesday press conference at which he announced a plan to let parents use public funds for private schools. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Amid lackluster participation in the state’s private school voucher program, Gov. Bill Lee made a move Tuesday to begin offering private school vouchers for every student statewide, regardless of family income.

Lee introduced his plan dubbed the Education Freedom Scholarship Act, which would set up a fund separate from the state’s K-12 funding formula to offer money to 20,000 students – possibly $7,000 each – in 2024-25 for vouchers and then expand to all students, roughly 1 million, the following year to attend private schools. Students who have a disability or are eligible for the existing Education Savings Account program would be allowed to received the funds.

“What I believe to be possible is that we can have the best public school systems in the country and that we can provide choice for every Tennessee family in this state,” Lee said during a press conference at the Tennessee State Museum in Nashville. “Those two things can happen if we will stay focused and make certain it is not about a school or a system or a strategy as much as it is about a child and their future.”

The governor was buoyed by Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who noted the nation is entering a “conservative education revolution.” 

Vouchers are a scam. They steal public tax dollars from our neighborhood schools and give them to wealthy families to create a coupon system for their private school tuition.

– Sen. London Lamar, D-Memphis

House Speaker Cameron Sexton and Lt. Gov. Randy McNally also spoke in favor of the plan, which is expected to be difficult to pass in the Legislature despite being the governor’s priority in 2024.

Funding will be made available the first year for 10,000 students whose families are at 300% of the federal poverty level, about $90,000 for a family of four, and 10,000 for a pool of students in public schools. During the 2025-26 school, all students would be eligible for the funds.

Asked whether the state should take funds for the proposed scholarship fund and steer them toward K-12 education, Lee said the state will continue to invest in public schools. The Lee Administration injected an extra $1 billion into K-12 schools two years ago and promised to push teachers’ starting pay to $50,000 by the end of his second term in three years.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Lizzette Gonzalez Reynolds told the governor during recent budget hearings that more than 2,400 students had been approved to receive vouchers in Metro Nashville, Shelby and Hamilton counties school districts. But some education leaders say the number of students using the funds is closer to 700 because of problems with transportation and other logistics. 

The Education Savings Account program, which was delayed for two years by court battles, was allowed to have 5,000 students in its first year and increase by 2,500 students annually for the next four years of the pilot program if it reached 75% capacity.

The American Federal for Children, a pro-voucher group, pointed out more legislatures are passing “universal” school programs.

“Gov. Lee understands that parents know their child best, and all parents should be able access the best K-12 education for their family’s unique needs,” the group said in a statement.

One million school vouchers: Gov. Bill Lee’s plan would set up a fund separate from the state’s K-12 funding formula to offer money to 20,000 students – possibly $7,000 each – in 2024-25 for vouchers and then expand to all students, roughly 1 million, the following year to attend private schools. S

Critics of voucher programs say they take critical money away from public schools and undermine entire districts.

In a Tuesday press conference, Democrats said statistics show students who use vouchers do not perform as well academically as traditional public school students.

“Vouchers are a scam,” Sen. London Lamar, D-Memphis, said. “They steal public tax dollars from our neighborhood schools and give them to wealthy families to create a coupon system for their private school tuition.”

Lamar called it a method for separating poor children from middle-class and affluent students.

Furthermore, Democrats said the spread of vouchers will wind up forcing local school districts to either cut teachers and sports such as football or raise taxes as public funds go toward private schools.

With juvenile crime spiraling in Memphis, Lamar said the diversion of public dollars to private schools will only make things worse.

Professional Educators of Tennessee also issued a statement Tuesday criticizing the plan, saying it has “the potential to severely impact the financial stability” of Tennessee’s public schools, which are undergoing a new funding formula designed to attach specific amounts to students and a new letter grade system based on student achievement on state tests rather than improvement.

"The voucher bill did not pass. The voucher bill was purchased on the balcony of the Tennessee House," said Rep. Bo Mitchell, R-Nashville, at right with Sen. Jeff Yarbro of a 2019 legislative vote to approve school vouchers. (Photo: John Partipilo)
“The voucher bill did not pass. The voucher bill was purchased on the balcony of the Tennessee House,” said Rep. Bo Mitchell, R-Nashville, at right with Sen. Jeff Yarbro of a 2019 legislative vote to approve school vouchers. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Lee made private school vouchers his first major initiative when he entered office in 2019. In the House vote, though, former Speaker Glen Casada held the board open for nearly 45 minutes to work the chamber for a tie-breaker, offering lawmakers incentives to pass the measure.

Ultimately, Rep. Jason Zachary of Knoxville changed his vote and supported the bill with the understanding Knox County Schools would not be made a voucher district.

“The voucher bill did not pass. The voucher bill was purchased on the balcony of the Tennessee House,” said Rep. Bo Mitchell, D-Nashville. 

He noted for the 43 minutes that Casada kept the vote board open, the former speaker brought in state troopers, blocked Democrats from going out on the balcony and used the sergeant at arms to keep them away. 

“Two gentlemen who are now federally indicted, both were on their phone talking to someone, I don’t know who, about what they could offer to get more votes,” Mitchell said.

An FBI investigation ensued amid claims that Casada offered perks such as the rank of general to former Rep. John Mark Windle, who was a colonel in the National Guard.

Former state Rep. Kent Calfee has said he overheard Casada say he would call the governor to see if he could get a promotion for Windle. Calfee said he visited the governor’s office to talk about the situation.

Casada denied the claim, and Lee has distanced himself from the matter, even though he also called House members to try to win their votes that April day in 2019. The FBI never filed any charges in connection with the vote, but Casada and his former chief of staff, Cade Cothren, face federal fraud charges in connection with kickbacks involving a campaign vendor run secretly by Cothren.