Gov. Bill Lee short on details as he rallies for universal school vouchers in Tennessee

A group of people sit in chairs at the front of a room while a large group of people sit in chairs looking at them. There is a bookshelf full of books in the background.
Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee and House Speaker Cameron Sexton speak Wednesday with school leadership at New Hope Christian Academy in Memphis, as well as Memphis parents whose students attend private schools with voucher funds. Both Tennessee Republicans are seeking support for a proposal to expand the program statewide. (Laura Testino/Chalkbeat)

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Gov. Bill Lee hit the road Wednesday to begin selling his universal school voucher proposal, but offered no new details about how much the program would cost over time, specific ways to hold private schools accountable when receiving taxpayer money, or what the impact could be to public schools.

However, the Republican governor, who announced in late November that he wants to take vouchers statewide, said he expects GOP leaders to file legislation on his behalf before Jan. 9, when the General Assembly reconvenes, answering many of those questions.

Despite skepticism and outright opposition to his plan from many corners of the state, Lee believes the pandemic has changed the calculus so that more Tennesseans — and their elected representatives — are ready to support universal school vouchers. In 2019, Lee’s scaled-down voucher program, using education savings accounts, barely squeaked through the House in a contentious and controversial vote.

“Through the pandemic, parents just became much more engaged with what was actually happening with their children and their education,” said Lee, adding that more parents are demanding more education choices for their children because of disagreements spawned by COVID over school closures and what kids are taught in public schools.

But the voucher proposal also has stoked fierce opposition across the state, especially in the Memphis area.

Last week, Arlington Public Schools released a fiery statement denouncing Lee’s plan as part of a systematic attack on public schools, while the director of Germantown Municipal School District recorded a video declaring that any private schools that accept voucher money should be held to the same standards as public schools. Lakeland’s school board passed a resolution this week opposing the plan, and the chairwoman of the board for Memphis-Shelby County Schools issued a statement Tuesday saying the board was “vehemently opposed” to Lee’s initiative.

Research is also mixed about whether vouchers help improve student performance.

On Wednesday, Lee was joined by House Speaker Cameron Sexton in Memphis at a panel discussion at New Hope Christian Academy, one of 80 private schools currently accepting vouchers through the education savings account program that began in 2022 in Davidson and Shelby counties, expanding this fall to Hamilton County.

While short on specifics, some comments by Lee and Sexton gave insights into the behind-the-scenes negotiations happening to garner support for Lee’s Education Freedom Scholarship Act and to pound out a bill to put before the GOP-controlled legislature.

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Academic testing requirements for voucher students unclear

Both leaders expressed openness to adding a facility component to the state’s new K-12 funding formula to help local governments pay for new public school construction or improvements to existing public school campuses — a chronic challenge in a state where schools need about $9 billion of infrastructure investments over five years, according to one recent government report.

Lee said he pushed for the formula overhaul in 2022 “to provide for more nuanced funding” and suggested that facility needs are in line with the new approach.

“If there are particular needs that school districts have, then we should look at that formula and how we more appropriately fund public schools going forward,” he said. “Not just more money, but more wisely spent money.”

The governor also said accountability for participating private schools would be part of his voucher bill, but he did not elaborate on what that would look like.

Currently, private schools participating in the ESA program have to administer annual state tests for math and English language arts to voucher students. But it’s hard to attract private schools to participate under that mandate. And results from those tests during the first year of the program indicate that participants performed worse than their public school peers in Davidson and Shelby counties, according to data from the state education department.

The governor’s press secretary, Elizabeth Johnson, previously told several media outlets that no testing requirements were in the draft legislation, though details were still being hammered out. Johnson did not immediately respond when asked Wednesday if any of those positions have changed as the proposal has evolved.

The draft also didn’t include other accountability measures that public schools must abide by such as third- and fourth-grade retention requirements for students who are deemed poor readers, or A-F grades for schools beginning this month, Johnson previously said.

Taking a different tact, Sexton suggested that Tennessee should rethink its accountability systems for public schools as part of any expansion of private school vouchers.

“Why don’t we treat the high-performing school districts the same as private [schools] and give them more autonomy and freedom to do their job?” Sexton told reporters after the panel discussion.

“Why not reward quality instead of trying to treat all school systems the same regardless of where they are?” he said.

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Such a change would begin to unravel a fundamental education policy in Tennessee, where GOP officials previously credited the state’s vaunted accountability systems for historic gains on national tests between 2011 and 2013.

Suburban Memphis leaders oppose planned voucher expansion

The governor emphasized accountability through parental choice during his visit to New Hope.

“We do know that parents know best what’s best for their kids,” Lee said. “When parents have choice, the parents and the children are empowered to live a better life and to move in a better direction.”

Lee later traveled to Chattanooga to participate in a similar event at Chattanooga Preparatory School to promote his proposal.

Sexton, who voted against the 2019 voucher bill but now says he supports universal vouchers, stayed in Shelby County to meet with suburban leaders. Public school officials in those suburbs have been among the noisiest critics of Lee’s proposal.

“In my past 10 years as a superintendent, our legislature has passed hundreds of laws that are crushing the way that we run our schools,” Germantown Municipal School District’s Jason Manuel said in his video recording. “None of these laws will apply to the schools accepting this taxpayer money.”

Manuel called for an even playing field. “Either these schools have to follow all of the same laws we do, or our legislators need to take all the restraints off of our schools and let us get back to the way we have always served our children,” he said.

Private school choice programs have grown in recent years, with states such as Florida, Iowa, and Arkansas passing massive expansions of their voucher initiatives.

But do vouchers work?

According to an ongoing Chalkbeat review of the research, there’s little recent evidence that vouchers improve student test scores. In fact, they’ve sometimes led to declines. But older studies are more positive toward vouchers, and some show that vouchers have a neutral or positive impact on student outcomes later in life.

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Research also suggests that targeted voucher programs may not be costly, but universal programs probably will be.

Other education advocates worry that that mostly GOP-driven drive to give parents more choices beyond public charter schools, magnet schools, and other optional programs will accelerate resegregation in schooling.

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

Laura Testino covers Memphis-Shelby County Schools for Chalkbeat Tennessee. Reach her at LTestino@chalkbeat.org

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