Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee Says School Voucher Program Won’t Pass This Year

Ryan Morgan
By Ryan Morgan
April 23, 2024Politics
Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee Says School Voucher Program Won’t Pass This Year
Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee delivers his State of the State address in the House Chamber of the Capitol building in Nashville, Tenn., on Jan. 31, 2022. (Mark Zaleski/AP Photo)

Republican Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee signaled on Monday that the state legislature will not pass a school voucher system this session despite “tremendous progress” on the effort.

“I am extremely disappointed for the families who will have to wait yet another year for the freedom to choose the right education for their child, especially when there is broad agreement that now is the time to bring universal school choice to Tennessee,” Mr. Lee said in a Monday evening press statement.

Tennessee’s state legislative session began this year on Jan. 9 and is set to conclude on Thursday, April 25.

“While we made tremendous progress, unfortunately it has become clear that there is not a pathway for the bill during this legislative session,” Mr. Lee said.

The governor’s comments come as a setback to activists who had sought a voucher system allowing parents to choose the school their child will attend—whether public or private—and have their child’s share of the state education budget go towards that chosen school. Mr. Lee had voiced support for the voucher plan.

“It’s very simple – this is about every Tennessee student having the opportunity to succeed, regardless of their zip code or income level, and without question, empowering parents is the best way to make sure that happens,” the Republican governor said of the voucher effort.

The Tennessee School Voucher Debate

Some school voucher supporters argue that such policies give students in low-performing schools a way out and give parents more control over what their children are taught. Some critics challenge the premise that school vouchers enable choices that yield better educational outcomes. Critics also argue that voucher systems risk taking money away from public school districts that may already be struggling for resources.

Mr. Lee unveiled plans last fall to pursue a school voucher plan in the 2024 legislative session. At the time, he was surrounded by the state’s Republican legislative leaders and Arkansas GOP Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who had signed into law a voucher proposal just that year and used the event to tout that a conservative education revolution was happening around the country.

The governor’s proposal, dubbed the “Education Freedom Scholarship Act,” would’ve entailed a phasing in, whereby around 20,000 Tennessee students would be eligible for a school choice voucher in the 2024-2025 school year, and then universal eligibility for all students across the state beginning in the 2025-2026 school year. He proposed that lower-income and returning scholarship students would be prioritized if the number of applicants in 2025 and beyond exceeded the available state funding.

Though Mr. Lee’s political party holds a supermajority in the state legislature, the topic of school vouchers did not gain traction with some members of the Republican Party.

“I’ve heard from my superintendent and specifically, verbatim, he said that ‘There’s not much in the enticements that really interest me or benefit my school,'” Republican Rep. Bryan Richey of Maryville said in a February committee hearing. “I’ve heard that from all of my school districts.”

Differing versions of a voucher plan advanced in the state House and Senate, but those bills ultimately stalled.

One Senate proposal would have attached a testing requirement for students who receive vouchers. A separate House proposal supported by the governor’s administration had dropped that testing requirement in February. The governor’s policy director, Michael Hendrix, said at the time that parent reactions would provide the best accountability measure because they would pull their children out of a school they felt were underperforming.

Lee Will Keep Trying

Tennessee lawmakers passed legislation in 2019 establishing an Education Savings Account (ESA) program. That program has directed state and local funds toward families in Memphis-Shelby County Schools, Metro Nashville Public Schools, and later in Hamilton County Public Schools to spend on qualifying education expenses, including tutoring services and private school tuition.

The 2019 ESA bill passed by a 51-46 vote in the Tennessee State House and a 19-14 vote in the state Senate.

Despite the struggles to gain Republican support with the earlier ESA bill and now with a more comprehensive school voucher program, Mr. Lee and his allies vowed to keep pushing for vouchers in the future.

The governor said he would discuss school vouchers with primary candidates, indicating he may support candidates who are more amenable to his proposals.

“I’ve always been engaged in primaries in the state whenever there’s an election,” Lee said. “But I’ll certainly be talking to primary candidates about how they feel about school choice.”

Republican House Speaker Cameron Sexton said this year’s efforts towards a voucher system had made greater progress than in previous years.

“Many initiatives need multiple years, or even multiple general assemblies, before they are ripe for passage,” Republican Lt. Gov. Randy McNally said Monday. “This is not an end, but a new beginning. Conversations will continue over the summer and fall, and we will revisit the issue next session with renewed purpose.”

Democrats in Tennessee, who widely opposed the school voucher program, celebrated after Mr. Lee pushed the issue beyond this current legislative session.

“My deepest gratitude to the educators, parents, school boards, local governments, advocates, students, and labor organizers who killed school vouchers and sent a resounding message that public schools matter,” Democrat state Sen. Charlane Oliver wrote in a Monday social media post. “The tide is shifting in Tennessee towards hope and change.”

“This is a huge and well-earned victory for Tennessee families, educators, and communities. The vouchers bill is dead because people from both sides of the aisle and from every part of the state showed up, spoke out, and did the work to kill it,” Democrat state Sen. Jeff Yarbro said on Monday.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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