NASHVILLE — Public school advocates and Democratic lawmakers are raising concerns not only about costs, but educational quality, testing and accountability under Republican Gov. Bill Lee's proposed statewide school voucher program.
The governor's office said officials expect Lee's proposed Education Freedom Scholarship Fund plan will receive appropriate vetting through the legislative process.
Asked by the Times Free Press about whether private schools that accept public education funds through the program would be held accountable through such tests as the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program, Lee Press Secretary Elizabeth Johnson responded by email.
"Parents are the best form of accountability," she said. "They have their child's best interest in mind and will hold schools accountable to that end. Ultimately, parents make the best decisions for their child and know when a school is right or wrong. Often that means sending kids to their local school district, but a child's future should never be dictated by their ZIP code.
"Private schools use a variety of national norm-referenced tests and TCAP scores to measure performance, similar to their counterparts in traditional public schools."
Not everyone agrees that Lee's plan is a good one.
"The fact that they clearly want the only accountability metric to be parent satisfaction demonstrates that they don't want these schools to be subject to the same standards, testing and accountability requirements as public schools," Sen. Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, said in a phone interview.
"Tennessee won't send a $200 unemployment check unless you fill out a form every week justifying why you continue deserving it," Yarbro said. "But they have no compunction sending $7,000 to a bogus school with no curriculum and no truth that they're teaching anything to anybody?"
Lee unveiled the proposal last week.
The vouchers are an expansion of his 2019 Education Savings Account progam, which is limited currently to Hamilton, Davidson and Shelby counties with just shy of 2,000 participants. That provides a nearly $9,000 dollar voucher for students.
Lee's current effort seeks to provide 10,000 grants worth an estimated $7,075 in state-only dollars during its first year for Tennessee students who are at or below 300% of the federal poverty level, have a disability, or are eligible for the existing voucher program. Another 10,000 grants would be made available to a universal pool of students who are entitled, but don't necessarily attend, a public school.
The estimated Year 1 cost could be about $141.5 million in state dollars.
In year 2 it expands the scholarships to any student attending a private or religious school, depending on funding. Johnson said the governor will be working with lawmakers to determine how much additional funding should be added in year two and beyond to grow the program in a fiscally responsible way.
Yarbro noted that Republicans pushed through legislation this year to require all public schools be graded on an A-to-F basis.
"If we're going to use taxpayer money to fund students in public schools, then we should be treating (private and religious schools) the same," Yarbro said. "They should be held to the same standard requirement of the public schools."
Tennessee Education Association President Tanya Coats in a statement to the Times Free Press questioned the administration's position that parents are the best form of accountability, suggesting no state-imposed accountability is necessary for private schools accepting taxpayer dollars.
"If the governor's position is that parents are the best form of accountability and no state-imposed accountability is necessary for private schools accepting vouchers, why are our public school students and educators burdened with high-stakes standardized tests?" Coats said. "State leaders have tied everything from third grade retention to teacher tenure to state tests all in the name of accountability.
"The state is also about to release simplistic and misleading A-F school letter grades that have been touted as an accountability for parents to understand how their schools are performing," Coats said. "How can our public school families and educators take this as anything but a slap in the face?"
Coats said directing state dollars to private school vouchers will hurt public education and "put our great public schools" at risk of closure.
"The only choices this program would provide are the choices for private schools to profit off Tennessee taxpayers and cherry-pick the students they want to educate," Coats said.
Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, a long-time voucher supporter, had taken Hamilton County out of the original program in 2019 because he and most of his fellow local Republican legislators wanted to give the county school system time for a new program to fix failing schools.
But it didn't work out as expected, he said, and in this year's legislative session, Gardenhire passed a bill opening the program to Hamilton County families.
Gardenhire said over the weekend he is on board with looking at expanding the program statewide.
"When I met with Gov. Lee a couple of weeks ago and he ran his concepts by me, I told him I was a firm believer in school choice," Gardenhire said by phone. "But obviously the devil was in the details. But in the principle for school choice that he was promoting, I'd be supporting. But I have to see the details."
He said he might have some concerns but believes he can work through the process and avoid any deal-breakers.
"I like to look at the long game down the road," said Gardenhire, who previously served as Senate Education Committee chair. "As you know and have seen as much as I have, whenever major programs come out, it never comes out in a finished form."
He noted it can take a year or two to "fine tune" something, the senator said.
"And I know critics will pounce on that and say, 'Oh, they ought to have had it all worked out first.' Well, you know, it's difficult to do something in the long game in a six-month period."
He said lawmakers should be acting for "our children's sake" and not for what he calls "the education establishment."
"The education establishment will fight any change at all because they consider themselves the experts in spending money. You can never satisfy the desire of the education industrial complex to spend money on programs. Some are good. And some are bad. And over a period of this session coming up, a lot of good ideas will come out and a lot of good ideas will go down. A lot of bad ideas will go down and a lot of bad ideas may survive."
Rep. Yusuf Hakeem, D-Chattanooga, opposes the expansion.
"My thought is that the governor and a majority of our legislature are being used by outside interests to dismantle our public school system," he said. "I see it as a diabolical scheme, extremely cruel, to take dollars from public education actually and put it into private schools."
Hakeem said his concern is that when the need comes for more education dollars for public schools, local governments and schools would have to look at property tax hikes to fill that gap.
Lee spokesperson Johnson said Tennessee residents entitled to attend K-12 at a public school, including homeschoolers enrolled in umbrella or church-related schools, would be eligible for the program. The bill is structured to prioritize eligibility for the "most at-risk students" before ramping up to universal eligibility with limited seats to ensure successful implementation in the 2025-26 school year and beyond, she said.