Timeline: How the private school voucher movement gained momentum in Tennessee

Tennessee school voucher proponents are 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 in the state, regardless of family income.

Gov. Bill Lee’s proposed Education Freedom Scholarship Act, if approved by the legislature this spring, would launch in the fall of 2024 with up to 20,000 students statewide. The Republican governor wants to extend it the following year to any student.

But Tennessee’s embrace of school vouchers for all has hardly been 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.

Even now, big questions loom 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, so soon after they were staring down defeat?

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.

In 2019, for example, the voucher law passed after a questionable parliamentary move, prompting several calls for a federal investigation. Two years later, the death of a Tennessee Supreme Court justice, just months after hearing arguments in the case, tipped the high court’s balance of power, likely contributing to the ruling that upheld the law.

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