Tennessee’s governor wants education voucher program to launch a year ahead of deadline

When Tennessee lawmakers signed off on an education voucher program this spring, they included a deadline: The program must start by the 2021-22 school year. 

Now, Gov. Bill Lee wants to cut that timeline in half, launching the program just a year from now — a prospect that has advocates and even some allies expressing concerns.

The Republican governor has directed the state education department to work with the Tennessee Board of Education so the controversial program can kick off for the 2020-21 school year, Chalkbeat has confirmed.

The expedited timeline means that eligible families in Memphis and Nashville would begin receiving education savings accounts, a newer type of voucher, as soon as next summer to use taxpayer money to pay for private school tuition or other private education services.

It also would accelerate the pace of lawsuits expected to be filed as soon as the program starts. Several groups, including the Tennessee Immigrant & Refugee Rights Coalition, are preparing to challenge the constitutionality of the new law, which seeks to exclude students from participating if their families entered the country without legal permission. Attorneys for Shelby County Schools in Memphis and Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools also are considering litigation because their two districts are targeted by the law.

The legislation, which Lee signed into law in May, says students can begin enrolling “no later than the 2021-22 school year.” But a spokeswoman for the governor confirmed Tuesday that the administration wants to deliver education savings accounts ahead of the final deadline.

“Working to help provide choice and opportunity for as many kids as we can, as quickly as we can, is a top priority for Gov. Lee and his administration,” said Laine Arnold, Lee’s press secretary. “Every day without implementation is another day that a child is stuck in a failing school and parents are lacking a choice for their son or daughter.”

Arnold characterized the pursuit of a 2020 launch as a priority rather than a change of course by Lee’s administration.

“School choice is something we care deeply about and, as soon as this became law, we hit the ground running,” she said. “We feel like this is a game changer, so we’re very dialed in on this.”

The push is alarming voucher opponents, who are still stinging from the bill’s passage through questionable parliamentary maneuvers by outgoing House Speaker Glen Casada. They worry that an accelerated rollout will be more prone to fraud in how the accounts, which will be loaded with an average of $7,300 a year, are used.

“In places like Arizona, vouchers have been a rolling disaster marked by outright fraud and theft. We can expect the same thing to happen in Tennessee,” said Rep. Mike Stewart of Nashville, who chairs the legislature’s Democratic caucus. 

“This shortened timeline just shows that the Lee administration has no interest in protecting taxpayer dollars,” Stewart said Wednesday. “The whole point is to take millions of dollars away from public schools as soon as possible and then to dole them out to Gov. Lee’s cronies who have been pressing for vouchers since he got in office.”

Others are concerned that the state won’t have adequate time to vet private schools wanting to participate or to notify eligible low-income families about their educational options. If those families don’t fill the 5,000 available spots in the first year of a program that’s touted to help impoverished students attending low-performing schools, then wealthier families can apply for the vouchers, even if they were planning to send their kids to private schools anyway.

“I think there’s a lot of due diligence that needs to occur and a lot of systems that have to be in place, and all of this needs to be done very thoughtfully,” said Gini Pupo-Walker of the Tennessee Educational Equity Coalition, which opposed the bill. “My concern is that, by speeding up the timeline, we may be putting the department in a bind.”

Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn said her department is in talks with the state Board of Education to “ensure a smooth rollout.”

“We are working diligently to have this program available as soon as possible, but will take the time needed to do so with quality,” she said in a statement this week.

Gov. Bill Lee visits in March with staff members at the state education department, including Commissioner Penny Schwinn (standing, at right). (TN.gov)

In an interview last month with Chalkbeat, Schwinn reflected on the “huge responsibility of implementing a big big law” that requires significant research, planning, and engagement work.

“One of our first steps will be looking at other [places] with similar programs to examine best practices,” she said at the time, citing Florida, Indiana, and Milwaukee. “All of those [places] have some really good lessons that we can learn from, both around what was effective and what they would do differently if they could go back.”

While the voucher law outlines a general blueprint, the department is tasked with dozens of new responsibilities to build the program, with some rule-making decisions required of the state Board of Education. Most immediately, the department must develop processes to notify lower-income families about the program, determine student eligibility, approve private schools or services that can participate, and establish a lottery system to select students if the number of applications exceed the number of spots.

Once the program is up and running, the department must administer the new accounts, establish a fraud-reporting system, refer suspected fraud cases to law enforcement, and suspend or terminate schools that don’t comply with the rules, plus generate annual reports on the results.

The department can choose to contract with an outside organization to administer all or part of the program, as states like Florida have done, under one provision of the new law. But Schwinn said last month she wouldn’t speculate about pursuing that option.

“It is really, really important that we do a lot of learning and listening and understanding before we make a decision like that,” she told Chalkbeat.

Several factors could work in the state’s favor as it pushes for a 2020 launch.

First, the education department already has some experience administering an education savings account program, having launched “individualized education accounts” for students with certain disabilities in 2017. However, that program — with 137 students last school year — is significantly smaller than the one under development, which will cap at 15,000 students in its fifth year. 

Second, the final bill shrunk the size of the program from Lee’s initial proposal, which would have offered vouchers to students in Memphis, Nashville, Knoxville, Chattanooga, and Jackson.

“It’s a lot easier when you’re just dealing with a couple of school districts,” said Rep. Bill Dunn, a Knoxville Republican who shepherded the voucher bill through the House and who favors an earlier launch. “This won’t require communicating with as many people.”

Teachers and parents rally against voucher legislation this spring outside of Tennessee’s State Capitol in Nashville. (Marta W. Aldrich/Chalkbeat)

Still, the voucher program — which the governor said would give parents of low-income children more choices to “help level the playing field” — can only fulfill that mission if the state fully engages with those families.

“That’s the most important thing,” Schwinn said. “Families will need to know about their options, finances, and schools that take ESAs. We’ve got to meet them in a place that’s conducive to them and be ready to answer all of their questions.”

Asked if the administration will hold for a 2021 start if the program is not fully built by 2020, Arnold said “we’ll cross that bridge when we get there.”

“We want to make sure this is high quality,” she said. “We’re chipping away at it every day.”

But Stewart predicted that Lee’s administration won’t back down now after setting a new deadline.

“There is a zero percent chance that anybody in his office has any intention of not implementing this as soon as they can,” the legislator said. “Anybody who thinks they are going to slow down this gravy train doesn’t know what’s happening.”

You can follow Chalkbeat’s ongoing voucher coverage here.