Education voucher rules cruise through Tennessee board, on track for 2020 program launch

Gov. Bill Lee’s education savings account program cleared a critical hurdle on Friday with the approval of a gamut of rules governing everything from how families can apply to how they can use taxpayer funds to pay for private education services.

The rules sailed through the state Board of Education with little discussion following preliminary approval by members in September. The 15-page document now heads to the joint legislative committee that reviews all operations for Tennessee state government.

The vote keeps the program on track to launch in the fall of 2020, a year earlier than required under a new state law. Lee ordered the accelerated timeline this summer. The reason, he said, was to provide more education choices as soon as possible for students in low-performing schools in Memphis and Nashville, the two cities targeted by the law.

The Republican governor told reporters last week that he was optimistic about a 2020 rollout but added: “We won’t compromise quality if it’s not ready for high-quality delivery.”

Next on the schedule: An online application system needs to go live early next year if education savings accounts are to stay on pace, said Deputy Commissioner Amity Schuyler, who is overseeing the program’s development. 

The Department of Education recently hired several vendors to help develop and manage online systems for applications and payments.

Schuyler acknowledged that the timeline ahead is tight but said she is optimistic as well. 

“There is nothing about the work that suggests to me this is not implementable for next year,” she told Chalkbeat this week. “If there was, I would be the first to sound the alarm.”

Developed by staff from the department, state board, and attorney general’s office, the rules and regulations were based largely on ones that Tennessee has used for its other education savings account program for students with disabilities. Launched in 2016, that program only has 136 students and 15 private schools participating, but the forthcoming program is expected to have far more.

Board members had flagged several concerns about the proposed rules in September when they got their first look.

High on the list was deciding what annual test measurements to use to determine when a participating school should be suspended or terminated from the program due to low academic performance by voucher students. Rules approved on Friday allow both state and national test results, instead of just scores on state assessments.

The final rules also require participating private schools to conduct criminal background checks through the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation on all employees who have contact with students — the same requirement as under public schools. And they list the criminal offenses that are non-negotiable to define employees who might reasonably pose a threat to the safety of students. 

“Private schools do conduct background checks, but there currently is some flexibility in determining from a background check if they can make some exceptions in hiring,” explained Elizabeth Fiveash, assistant commissioner for legislative affairs, prior to Friday’s meeting.

Another substantive change: Removing a provision that would have required participants to spend at least 50% of their voucher funds each year.

 “We certainly want to ensure funds are being spent to educate students during the school year,” Fiveash said. “However, the statute doesn’t clearly provide that authority and we would have to seek a legislative change.”

To be eligible, students must be zoned for Shelby County Schools or Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools and must be attending a Tennessee school this school year or entering kindergarten next year. The family’s household income also must not exceed double what’s needed to qualify for free lunch under federal guidelines. That’s about $65,000 annually for a family of four.