Tennessee voucher program would double in size, but still bar undocumented students in latest proposal

Gov. Bill Lee’s education savings account proposal is slated to debut in Tennessee’s Senate on Wednesday with some significant changes from a bill that already has cleared three hurdles in the House.

The latest amendment would cap the voucher program at 30,000 students instead of 15,000 as approved by House committees.

It would add back homeschoolers who were stripped out of the House bill last month to appease several representatives. Like other participants, those families would be eligible to receive an average of $7,300 annually in taxpayer funds to pay for private education services.

However, the Senate version does not drop constitutionally suspect language designed to exclude families from participating if they do not have legal authorization to be in the country. That provision appears to conflict with a 1982 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that requires states to offer public education to all children, regardless of their immigration status.

Some changes were promised last week by Sen. Dolores Gresham when the Somerville Republican tabled the measure for a week in the Senate Education Committee that she chairs. But differences with the House bill also have the potential to derail the proposal, even as Republican majority leaders are anxious to hand the new Republican governor a significant legislative win in his first year in office.

Tennessee’s General Assembly has never approved a voucher bill of this magnitude, despite numerous attempts over the last decade.

Gresham had said that she would look closely at any language requiring families who apply for the program to provide government-issued documents like birth certificates, driver’s licenses, or passports. “I believe federal law requires us to teach everybody,” she said when asked if the House provision could be unconstitutional.

But the governor has said he wants the program to be available for “legal residents.”

Gresham did not respond Tuesday or Wednesday to multiple calls asking about the amendment.

Testing is another issue being closely watched as the bill evolves, especially given that both Gresham and House Education Committee Chairman Mark White are strong proponents of using test scores to hold public school students, teachers, and districts accountable.

However, Gresham’s amendment would retreat further from making students with education savings accounts take the same state tests as their counterparts in public schools. The Senate version would allow participants to take nationally normed tests in math and English language arts, while the House bill would require state tests in those same subjects.

Under either version, the state would require public school students to take twice as many annual assessments — including tests for science, social studies, civics, and the ACT college entrance exam — as students who receive education savings accounts to pay for private school tuition or other private education services.

Meanwhile, about 50 people rallied against Lee’s proposal Tuesday afternoon outside of the State Capitol and called for a larger protest next Monday when lawmakers return to work for another week.

“What this plan is going to do is take money from over 90 percent of our kids and give it to just a few,” said Lauren Sorensen, a Knox County teacher who helped organize the event.

“Our legislators actually have a constitutional duty in Tennessee to maintain and support a public education. They have no duty to support private education. And simply put, they are not doing their jobs,” Sorensen said.

The rally drew parents too, including Patty Daniel whose two children attend public schools in Williamson County, near Nashville.

“All of the parents I know do not want vouchers, and we are baffled as to why some of our elected officials are so intent on pushing this bill,” Daniel said. “I feel like they are listening to high-powered lobbying groups and not to actual parents and teachers.”

Tikeila Rucker, president of the United Education Association of Shelby County, speaks during the anti-voucher rally. (Marta W. Aldrich/Chalkbeat)

The protest came after almost 200 people held a similar demonstration last weekend in Knoxville at a GOP event attended by Lee.

A spokeswoman for the governor said Tuesday that Lee is trying to give families more education choices for children “who are trapped in the worst-performing school districts and face income barriers in providing a high-quality education.”

But voucher critics at the Capitol said they feared that, under Lee’s proposal, private schools would actually have more choices because they could cherry-pick the public school students they want.

“The governor keeps saying he wants all children in Tennessee to have a good education and, if he really means that, he should fully fund our schools,” said Stacey Reece, a high school teacher in Knoxville.

You can follow the bill’s progression here.