Opinion: Gov. Bill Lee’s school voucher program prioritizes privilege over equity

Staff photo by Andy Sher / Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee on Tuesday unveiled Education Freedom Scholarship Act of 2024, his administrations legislative proposal to establish statewide universal school choice, alongside members of the General Assembly, Tennessee families and education stakeholders. Seated at left is Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, whose state recently passed a similar program.
Staff photo by Andy Sher / Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee on Tuesday unveiled Education Freedom Scholarship Act of 2024, his administrations legislative proposal to establish statewide universal school choice, alongside members of the General Assembly, Tennessee families and education stakeholders. Seated at left is Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, whose state recently passed a similar program.

Public education is a right in this country. It is not a means to keep the privileged class in privilege. And yet that is exactly what Republican Gov. Bill Lee appears to be setting up with his proposal to expand a school voucher program.

The Education Freedom Scholarship Act that was unveiled Tuesday seems to be a scheme to create a statewide private education system using taxpayers funds.

"What I believe to be possible is that we can have the best public school systems in the country and that we can provide choice for every Tennessee family in this state," Lee said during a news conference at the Tennessee State Museum in Nashville. "Those two things can happen if we will stay focused and make certain it is not about a school or a system or a strategy as much as it is about a child and their future."

Lee's proposal would provide $7,000 per child to families that can be used to pay for tuition at private or religious schools willing to accept them. In the first year, only students who are at or below 300% of the federal poverty level ($90,000 household income for a family of four), have a disability or are eligible for the existing ESA pilot program could take part in the program. At first, 20,000 scholarships will be made available. Later on, the voucher program will be available to any family, regardless of income.

Tennessee has a pilot voucher program now available in three counties: Davidson, Shelby and Hamilton. About 2,000 students are participating in the program.

Public education advocates are opposed to expanding the voucher program statewide and argue that Lee's proposal will siphon money away from public schools that need more investment, not less.

"If the money would stay and they adequately fund public education at the same level that private schools are doing education, we could provide students more opportunities and more choices and be comparable to the private schools, but that is not what they have done," Hamilton County Education Association President Jeanette Omarkhil said in an interview Wednesday.

Public funds should be used for the benefit of public school students, not to benefit private schools.

Privatization is the opposition

What sense does it make to give a family that already can afford to send a child to private school a voucher to offset their costs? Those dollars can and should go toward resources at schools that serve the vast majority of school-age children in the state.

These vouchers threaten public education, critics argue.

"Vouchers are a scam," Memphis Democratic Sen. London Lamar said in a news conference on Wednesday. "They steal public tax dollars from our neighborhood schools and give them to wealthy families to create a coupon system for their private school tuition."

One potential consequence is the likelihood that private schools will boost their tuition rates once state money starts flowing in. Will the state increase the value of vouchers in subsequent years? That in turn, increases the overall cost to the state and to parents of students attending those schools.

This very thing is happening in Arizona's year-old program. State leaders promised families roughly $7,000 a year to spend on private schools and other nonpublic education options, dangling the opportunity for parents to pull their kids out of what were called "failing government schools," according to a Hechinger Report story.

Some private schools are hiking their tuition by thousands of dollars, risking pricing out the students whom the vouchers were intended to serve, according to Hechinger.

So let's get real about this proposal.

Lee's proposal is far from a slam-dunk in the General Assembly next year. There are details to be worked out, and as always, the devil is in the details. For example, what are the accountability measures that will be used to measure student success or effectiveness of the schools that accept vouchers?

Lee's 2019 effort to pass a voucher plan barely got by. Not all Republicans are fully on board yet. Lawmakers, especially from the state's rural areas, are sure to get an earful of opposition before they head back to Nashville in January.

Public education comes first

Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who appeared with Lee at the news conference, spoke more truth than she realized when she described the voucher expansion as part of a nationwide "conservative education revolution." This "revolution" is centered on the integration of religion and education — 84% of schools approved to be in the student voucher program are religiously affiliated, according to the Tennessee Lookout.

No thank you.

The right to an education shouldn't involve a religion. Remember separation of church and state?

Tennessee has taken the right steps in supporting public education, such as funding teacher raises and providing for extra funds for mental health resources in schools. Those are much-needed improvements.

But all of that will fall flat if the state's public education resources are slowly bled of students and their families with the allure of a private school voucher.

Public education is a right in this country that must be protected. It prepares students for a productive life, supports an informed citizenry and creates paths to social and economic mobility. Tennessee should double down on investing in public education, not diverting resources in the name of "choice."

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