Tennessee’s new governor unveils a ‘choice-friendly’ proposed budget including vouchers, charter school support

Proclaiming that “choice is good” when it comes to education, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee on Monday proposed creating a voucher program for students from low-income families and said he will support legislation to make it easier to open high-quality charter schools.

He also asked lawmakers to approve a 2.5 percent increase toward teacher pay, and proposed doubling the amount of state funding to help charter schools pay for facility needs.

Unveiling his first spending plan since taking office, the Republican governor set aside $25.5 million to create a voucher program that would let each eligible family receive $7,300 in taxpayer money to pay for private tuition or tutoring, online courses, or other education services. The money would be funneled through special accounts known as education savings accounts, similar to Tennessee’s existing voucher program for students with disabilities. In recent years, the approach has gained traction in states like Arizona, Florida, Mississippi, and Nevada.

If approved by the Tennessee General Assembly, the program would start with 5,000 students in its first year and scale up gradually. Eligibility would be limited to students from low-income families in districts with three or more schools in the state’s bottom 10 percent — essentially affecting some students in Memphis, Nashville, Chattanooga, Knoxville, and Jackson-Madison County.

“Low-income students deserve the same opportunities as other kids, and we need a bold plan that will help level the playing field,” Lee said during his first State of the State address before a joint session of the Tennessee General Assembly.

Lee’s proposed budget and speech offered the first details of his policies since the Williamson County businessman announced he would run for office in 2017 on a platform of improved education, better jobs, and safer neighborhoods.

Some of his proposed new investments in education — particularly in career and technical education, school security, and more offerings in science, engineering, science, and math — were anticipated. However, the prospect of a voucher program remained uncertain up until the last minute, even as Lee has said frequently that Tennessee should give parents more education choices for their children.

In his address, Lee never used the word “vouchers,” which polls poorly among voters and is rarely used now by pro-voucher advocates. Instead, he talked about giving parents more choices through education savings accounts, also known as ESAs — verbiage that garners more public support.

He also offered an early peek at how his administration will seek to sell education savings accounts in the legislature, where an unlikely coalition of Democrats and rural Republicans have banded together for more than a decade to successfully oppose vouchers.

“I know there’s concern that programs like this will take money away from public schools, but my ESA plan will invest at least $25 million new dollars in public schools in the first year to fill the gap when a student transfers to another school,” he said, rallying lawmakers that “now is the time.”

Lee’s “choice-friendly” education plan also proposes to create a new independent state entity to authorize more charter schools. Under Tennessee law, only local school boards have the power to authorize new charters, although the state-run Achievement School District can authorize charter conversions of struggling schools and the State Board of Education can authorize charters on an appellate basis.

Lee wants to take that a step further and to enhance a 2017 state law aimed at improving charter quality.

“I believe highly accountable public charter schools are a great model for expanding choice without sacrificing quality, and I’ve seen firsthand how they can dramatically impact the life and trajectory of a student,” Lee said. “In my budget, we are doubling the amount of public charter school facility funding and I will support legislation this year that makes it easier to open good charter schools and easier to close bad ones.”

The enlarged charter school fund would give the state’s 112 charters the chance to vie for facility grants totaling $12 million next fiscal year and would make the third straight year that Tennessee has set aside money for that purpose.

For teacher pay, Lee proposed an extra $71 million that, if approved, would continue Tennessee’s climb in compensation. During his last term in office, then-Gov. Bill Haslam shepherded an extra $500 million to raise salaries. But the bump didn’t always reach educators’ paychecks because the state’s funding formula gives local districts discretion in how to use money for instructional needs if they already are paying their teachers the state’s base salary of $35,000.

In all, Lee proposed an increase of $211 million for K-12 education as part of his $38.6 billion state spending plan, about 17 percent of which would go to K-12.

Lee’s voucher plan drew a standing ovation from state lawmakers, praise from “parent choice” groups, and groans from voucher opponents — a foreshadowing of the debate to come.

“Expanding education savings accounts will increase school choice, encourage innovation, drive competition, and open doors for children who have for too long been failed by a bureaucracy that does not meet their unique needs,” said Shaka Mitchell, director of the pro-voucher Tennessee Federation for Children.

But Beth Brown, president of the state’s largest teacher group, said education savings accounts are simply “vouchers with less accountability that are more susceptible to fraud and abuse.”

“Let’s support Tennessee students and teachers by directing taxpayer dollars to our public school classrooms, not vouchers that harm student achievement,” she said in behalf of the Tennessee Education Association.

In Arizona, where lawmakers approved education savings accounts in 2011, the program has been marred by fraud. A recent audit reported that parents who used the program misspent $700,000 from their 2018 accounts on banned items that included cosmetics and clothing.

Accountability issues have tripped up past voucher proposals in Tennessee’s legislature, and key lawmakers have said those concerns must be addressed to get their support this time around.

“You’ll see accountability provisions,” promised Tony Niknejad, Lee’s policy director, who spoke with reporters about the voucher plan earlier in the day but declined to describe those provisions.

JC Bowman, who leads the Professional Educators of Tennessee, called vouchers the “most problematic” part of Lee’s first-year agenda.

“By targeting districts that are lower performing, Governor Lee may be able to pass it through the Tennessee General Assembly,” Bowman said. “Nevertheless, [education savings accounts] do not guarantee improved school effectiveness or outcomes, better parental involvement, and certainly no increased systemic investments in public education.”

The governor plans to deliver regional addresses later this week. A State of East Tennessee speech is planned for Tuesday in Knoxville, and a State of West Tennessee address is scheduled for Thursday in Memphis.

This story has been updated to include new details and reaction to the governor’s proposed budget and address.