Tennessee governor lists school vouchers among his biggest accomplishments — and disappointments

Gov. Bill Lee has been at the helm of Tennessee during the coronavirus pandemic.
Gov. Bill Lee made passage of education savings accounts, a newer type of voucher, the signature legislative goal of his first year in office. (TN.gov)

Gov. Bill Lee says passage of a school voucher law in Tennessee is among his administration’s top accomplishments, while court rulings that blocked the program’s launch this year is among his biggest disappointments.

Lee also expects the program’s rollout, which was halted when a Nashville judge overturned the 2019 law in May, will be resurrected in 2021. The Tennessee Court of Appeals is expected to rule this fall on the state’s appeal.

“I think that’s going to be temporary, but I expect that will go forward,” he said several court rulings that blocked the state from a fall kickoff.

During an online talk show broadcast Thursday by the pro-voucher Beacon Center of Tennessee, Lee talked about his highs and lows since taking office in January of 2019. The overturned education savings account law, which would allow eligible families in Memphis and Nashville to use taxpayer funding to pay for private school tuition, was near the top of both lists.

“Education savings accounts, parent choice, especially for minority kids and low-income kids, [are] very deeply important to me,” said Lee, who also cited expansion of vocational education and abortion restrictions as accomplishments.

Regardless of the outcome of the appeal, the voucher case likely will end up at the Tennessee Supreme Court. Metropolitan Nashville and Shelby County jointly challenged the law because it applies only to their communities without giving their local governments or voters a say.

The Beacon Center, a conservative public policy group, is among three pro-voucher organizations that have joined the state’s voucher appeal.

During the center’s 37-minute podcast, the Republican governor also spoke about school reopenings during the coronavirus pandemic, as well as ongoing racial justice protests and demonstrations that erupted following the May 25 killing of George Floyd, a Black man who died under the knee of a white police officer in Minneapolis. 

Lee has urged school districts to reopen school buildings. He has said he plans to sign legislation passed last week by Tennessee lawmakers to increase penalties for certain protest-related offenses and impose mandatory minimum sentences in some cases.

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