A statewide coalition of more than 50 civil rights and education advocacy groups came out Monday against Gov. Bill Lee’s signature education proposal, which he has pitched as a way to help low-income students who attend low-performing schools.

The Tennessee Educational Equity Coalition, which champions policies that address disparities in education, said Lee’s plan to create education savings accounts would instead end up helping middle-class families. The accounts are a new kind of voucher that give families taxpayer money to pay for private school or other private education services.

The group charged that the proposed plan would exclude and discriminate against some students and questioned the state’s ability to measure the program’s success if participants are not required to take the same state assessments as Tennessee’s public school students.

Calling voucher bills moving through the legislature “a step backwards” for Tennessee, the coalition urged the governor to instead invest more money in proven school improvement strategies like Shelby County Schools’ Innovation Zone, which gives additional resources and pays for extended school days to turn around low-performing schools.

“Parents must be empowered to make the best possible educational choice for their child, but this bill is not in keeping with the course we have set as a state over the past decade, and which has yielded improvement across all student groups,” the coalition said.

The statement — released as the governor’s bill is slated for key legislative committee votes this week — marks the first time that the 3-year-old coalition has taken a stand against a major proposal. The group’s previous positions have generally supported state policies, including sticking with TNReady testing despite problems administering online exams last year.

The coalition’s diverse members include the Tennessee chapter of the NAACP, the YWCA, the National Civil Rights Museum, and education funds, foundations, or urban leagues in Memphis, Nashville, Knoxville, and Chattanooga.

“Vouchers take critical resources away from our neighborhood public schools, the very schools that are attended by the vast majority of African-American students,” the NAACP said in a separate statement. “Furthermore, private and parochial schools are not required to observe federal nondiscrimination laws, even if they receive federal funds through voucher programs.”

The coalition’s decision to oppose the governor’s voucher plan was not unanimous and was delivered amid trepidation that the position could put members at odds with the new Republican governor, said Gini Pupo-Walker, senior director of education and programs for Conexión Américas, which serves Latino families in Nashville and is a founding member of the coalition.

The group wants to work with Lee on education issues affecting students who are of color, learning English, living in poverty, or living with a disability.

Gini Pupo-Walker

“Taking a position against the governor’s signature bill was one of the most difficult decisions we’ve made as a coalition,” said Pupo-Walker. “But this was one where the litmus test was so clear for us on our values and priorities as a coalition and the communities we represent. We felt like if we didn’t take a position, people might think we’re OK with this or that we think it might be a good plan for the kids we focus on.”

Among coalition members that opposed taking a position were the Tennessee Charter School Center and the State Collaborative on Reforming Education, also known as SCORE. SCORE is a high-profile research and advocacy group that has worked closely with Tennessee’s education department.

“The coalition has collaboratively elevated and improved education equity in Tennessee and, because that vital work needs to continue, we advised TEEC against taking a stand on this issue,” said SCORE spokeswoman Teresa Wasson.

Lee’s press secretary declined to respond to the coalition’s statement and said the governor stands by his proposal.

You can view the coalition’s full statement below:

The Tennessee Educational Equity Coalition formed in 2016 in order to harness the influence and voices of a diverse group of civil rights and education advocacy organizations and leaders across the state. From the beginning, our shared policy priorities centered on addressing the chronic disparities in opportunities, achievement and outcomes for students of color, and those learning English, living in poverty or with a disability. We applaud Governor Lee for making education a priority in his first year, and for investing in teacher pay, and increased access to advanced courses, STEM programs, career and technical education, and post-secondary programs for incarcerated Tennesseans. We worked closely with Commissioner McQueen and the Tennessee Department of Education on the design and implementation of the Tennessee ESSA plan, and remain committed to ongoing partnership with the new administration.

However, many of our Coalition members believe that Governor Lee’s Education Savings Account proposal (SB 795/HB 939) is not aligned to our priorities. Parents must be empowered to make the best possible educational choice for their child, but this bill is not in keeping with the course we have set as a state over the past decade, and which has yielded improvement across all student groups. It is not designed to serve our students that are most in need, and it codifies educational practices that are exclusionary and discriminatory.

First, this bill, does not address the needs of low-income students or those attending our lowest performing schools. In fact, it provides middle income students in top-performing public schools the opportunity to access public funds for private instruction. The $7300 voucher is not considered payment in full to participating private schools, and represents only a fraction of the actual cost of most private schools in Tennessee. It is unlikely that low-income families can cover the remainder of tuition cost, fees, and other indirect expenses, reducing their chances of participating. The income threshold, set at $65,000 for a family of four, will expand the number of families that can participate, thereby reducing the number of available vouchers for low-income students. Additionally, students from any school in one of the qualifying districts can apply for a voucher, regardless of its quality.

Second, this ESA bill does not guarantee school choice. Private schools will continue to adhere to their admissions criteria, despite receiving voucher money.  They decide who may enroll in their schools, and can legally deny entry to students based on gender, ability, language of origin, sexual orientation, or religious and social beliefs. The Governor’s legislation explicitly discriminates against undocumented families, prohibiting families with undocumented parents from participating, even if the student is an American citizen. This feature of the ESA bill will trigger an immediate and costly legal challenge. The Supreme Court has long recognized that “where the state has undertaken to provide an educational opportunity, it must be made available to all on equal terms.” Plyler v. Doe, 457 U.S. 202, 223 (1982) Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483, 493 (1954)

Third, families with students with disabilities are required to waive their rights to protections under the Individuals with Disabilities Act once they accept a voucher. These include the right to disciplinary protections, accommodations for instruction or assessments, or access to services laid out in a student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP).

Additionally, the most recent Senate version of the ESA bill does not require students to take the TNReady assessment, and allows them to take an alternate norm-referenced test. Tennesseans need to know if this financial investment is benefiting students, and families must understand how well private schools are serving students with vouchers. If public dollars are to be diverted to private schools, they should be held accountable according to the framework we use to evaluate all public schools, and that must include the administration of TNReady.

Student achievement ought to be the driving force behind any education reform initiative, and the impact of school vouchers on student success is inconclusive at best. Research does confirm that current initiatives in Tennessee, such as the Innovation Zones, are demonstrating success with our lowest performing schools.  Tennessee must continue to make investments in proven strategies that are making a tangible difference in communities and in the lives of students most in need.

Tennessee has dramatically improved student achievement in K-12 education, setting records for academic progress, and relying on innovative collaboration in order to keep the focus on what is best for students. SB 795/HB 939 will be a step backwards in the progress we have made over the past decade. It is our belief that Governor Lee and our state legislature must set bold goals for all 1 million public school students in Tennessee, and invest our funding and resources on increasing their odds of success. We remain committed to working with the Governor Lee and the Tennessee Department of Education on serving and supporting all students in our state.