Timeline: How private school voucher movement gained momentum in Tennessee before hitting a bump

As Tennessee lawmakers got to work this year, school voucher proponents appeared to be closing in on their ultimate prize: a state law that would eventually allow for taxpayer funding for most kinds of schooling — public, private, parochial — for any student, regardless of family income.

But Gov. Bill Lee is regrouping after his proposed Education Freedom Scholarship Act, which was supposed to launch in the fall of 2024, stalled in the waning days of the legislative session. Republican leaders cited disagreements on big issues like testing and funding.

The Republican governor has pledged to try again next year.

Tennessee’s embrace of school vouchers for all was never a foregone conclusion. Slimmed-down versions of the idea died many times in the legislature before one finally squeaked through on a controversial vote in 2019.

A group of parents and local governments sued to block it, and the courts initially declared the plan unconstitutional. Those detractors continue to push back on Lee’s latest proposal, with more than 50 school boards on record opposing it.

Also, the research hasn’t supported the case for vouchers as a way to improve academic outcomes. Recent studies find little evidence that vouchers improve test scores. In fact, they’ve sometimes led to declines.

Big doubts remain about the cost, impact, and legal merits of a program that threatens to destabilize Tennessee’s public education system.

So how did vouchers take on an air of inevitability in Tennessee, before Lee’s retreat?

It was a combination of political swings, judicial shakeups that led to a string of court victories, and a pandemic that ignited culture wars and shook faith in public schools. Also, credit behind-the-scenes lobbying, political maneuvers, and heavy influence from out-of-state groups with deep pockets.

Below is a closer look at where the march to universal vouchers began, and how it arrived at this pivotal point in Tennessee:

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

Thomas Wilburn is the senior data editor for Chalkbeat. Contact him at twilburn@chalkbeat.org.

Project credits:

  • Photography and illustrations: Elaine Cromie
  • Editing: Krishnan M. Anantharaman, Tonyaa Weathersbee

Editor’s note: This project has been updated with developments from the 2024 legislative session.