Tennessee governor proposes statewide college voucher program

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Gov. Invoice Lee proposed Tuesday to take Tennessee’s training voucher program statewide, beginning with as much as 20,000 college students who would get taxpayer cash subsequent college yr to attend a personal or dwelling college.

The Republican governor additionally referred to as for all Okay-12 college students to be eligible for vouchers starting in 2025.

Lee’s Training Freedom Scholarship Act, providing $7,075 yearly for every participant, would mark a large growth of eligibility for a voucher program that was billed as a pilot challenge and is now in its second yr. The state’s training financial savings account program, which at present is proscribed to a few city counties, has slightly below 2,000 enrollees.

Throughout an announcement in Nashville attended principally by lawmakers and voucher advocates, Lee mentioned statewide voucher eligibility was his imaginative and prescient for Tennessee throughout his first gubernatorial marketing campaign in 2018, when he referred to as for extra training decisions for folks.

“Dad and mom know what’s greatest for his or her youngster because it pertains to training,” he mentioned, including that the vouchers would give all Tennessee households the liberty to decide on a superb match, whether or not it’s in public, personal, parochial, or dwelling faculties.

His plan would finally get rid of earnings necessities and alter who may benefit from the vouchers. Fairly than giving college students from low-income households a chance to attend personal faculties — the unique said goal of Lee’s training financial savings account program — the common vouchers Lee now proposes might additionally subsidize tuition prices for college kids from extra prosperous households who already attend personal faculties.

It’s unsure whether or not the ultimate laws would maintain personal or dwelling faculties accepting voucher cash to the identical accountability requirements that public faculties are topic to, together with testing necessities or the A-F letter grades that the state is making ready to offer out for the primary time in December.

“The ultimate particulars of this laws aren’t labored out,” Lee advised reporters after his announcement. “That is Day One. This will likely be a legislative effort.”

However Lee’s proposal will face a battle when the Normal Meeting reconvenes in January. Even beneath a GOP supermajority, Tennessee’s voucher regulation squeaked by way of the Home of Representatives in 2019, after sponsors agreed to restrict this system to some city areas.

The open-ended price of common vouchers will likely be a difficulty in a state the place monetary specialists have warned lawmakers lately that Tennessee’s authorities wants to manage spending in coming years. Lee mentioned his voucher proposal could be funded by way of a separate scholarship account, not the funding construction at present in place for public faculties, however he didn’t present a price evaluation.

Lee is attempting to trip the momentum of different states with Republican-controlled legislatures — together with Florida, Iowa, and Arkansas — that handed large expansions of their voucher packages this yr amid dad or mum anger over pandemic-era college closures and disagreements over what youngsters are taught in public faculties.

Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, a fellow Republican who signed a regulation in March creating a college voucher program in her state, appeared on stage with Lee for his announcement. She heralded the work of their states as a part of a “conservative training revolution,” with vouchers as a centerpiece.

Extra necessary for the legislative battle forward had been pledges Tuesday by Tennessee Home Speaker Cameron Sexton and Lt. Gov. Randy McNally to advance Lee’s voucher agenda. Sexton, a constitution college advocate and sure candidate for governor in 2026, voted in opposition to Lee’s training financial savings account invoice in 2019 and didn’t say why he now assist’s Lee’s proposal.

Nonetheless, the legislature’s Democratic leaders mentioned Lee and GOP management are in for a struggle — just like the one in Texas, the place a bipartisan coalition of Democrats and rural Republicans beat again Gov. Greg Abbott’s college voucher invoice this month throughout a particular legislative session.

Throughout a morning information convention, Tennessee Democrats charged that statewide vouchers will weaken public faculties and result in cuts in all the pieces from college personnel to arts and athletic packages, plus elevated property taxes for residents. And so they pledged to work throughout the aisle with Republican lawmakers who’ve been skeptical of vouchers from the outset.

“On the Home aspect, we’re already reaching out to native officers to affix us in supporting public faculties,” mentioned Rep. John Ray Clemmons, a Nashville Democrat and Home caucus chairman, noting that public college districts are usually the most important employers within the state’s rural communities.

Three people stand in front of a blue wall and in front of a podium for a press conference.

Democrats additionally warned that, beneath the governor’s plan, personal faculties will be capable of select the voucher college students they wish to settle for, particularly from households which might be already certain for a personal training.

“What that is is a coupon program for wealthy households who don’t wish to pay the total value of tuition,” mentioned Sen. London Lamar of Memphis, chief of the Senate Democratic caucus.

In the meantime, leaders of teams each for and in opposition to vouchers mentioned they had been mobilizing for the struggle forward.

Among the many pro-voucher contingent is People for Prosperity in Tennessee, a part of a conservative community backed by the billionaire Koch brothers, and the American Federation for Kids, whose founding chairperson was Michigan billionaire Betsy DeVos.

Opposing Lee’s plan are the state’s two largest skilled organizations for educators, the Tennessee Training Affiliation and Skilled Educators of Tennessee.

Tennessee has been a battleground state within the college alternative motion, with a coalition of conservative political organizations utilizing out-of-state cash to marketing campaign in opposition to incumbent lawmakers who oppose vouchers.

Lee’s latest proposal, if authorized, would put Tennessee on monitor to change into the tenth state to undertake a common voucher program, becoming a member of states like Arizona, Ohio, Oklahoma, North Carolina, and West Virginia. However the change would occur earlier than state officers have sufficient information to guage the effectiveness of its present training financial savings account program, nonetheless in its second yr of operation.

For the 2024-25 college yr, Lee proposes to offer 10,000 “scholarships” for college kids who’re thought-about economically deprived, have a incapacity, or are eligible for Tennessee’s present training financial savings account program. One other 10,000 would go to a common pool of scholars throughout the state.

Starting in 2025-26, Tennessee would supply vouchers to any Okay-12 pupil.

A one-page promotional doc circulated by the governor workplace mentioned Tennessee would prioritize “at present enrolled college students, low-income and public college college students if demand exceeds obtainable funding.”

For years, Tennessee has been within the backside tier of states in funding public training and stays within the backside half nationally, even with a $1 billion enhance this yr as a part of Lee’s overhaul of Tennessee’s training funding system.

In 2020-21, earlier than the newest funding, nationwide information ranked the state thirty seventh for per-student funding. And in its annual grades for training funding, the Training Regulation Middle gave Tennessee two F’s for funding stage and energy, and a D for funding distribution.

Marta Aldrich is a senior correspondent and covers the statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee. Contact her at maldrich@chalkbeat.org.

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