NASHVILLE — Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee on Tuesday announced a sweeping plan to push legislation next year to extend the state's school voucher program beyond Davidson, Shelby and Hamilton counties to all 95 counties.
Calling it an "important day for our state," Lee told a crowd of several hundred, including parents, lawmakers and advocates for school vouchers that his Tennessee Education Freedom Scholarship Act of 2024 plan makes "school choice a reality for every Tennessee family."
Lee's proposal would provide $7,000 to families per child, regardless of family income, that they can use to attend private or religious schools willing to accept them.
Democratic lawmakers condemned the Republican governor's proposal.
"Vouchers are a scam," Senate Democratic Caucus Chair London Lamar of Memphis told reporters at a news conference prior to Lee's formal announcement. "They steal public tax dollars from my neighborhood schools and give them to wealthy families through a coupon system for their private school tuition.
"What we've seen is an opportunity to separate rich families from poor families," Lamar said. "What I see in my district is private schools increasing the cost of their tuition in order to keep certain students out to get this voucher program."
Lee will present the legislation in when the Republican-dominated General Assembly convenes for its 2024 session.
Lawmakers first approved Lee's Education Savings Account program in 2019 amid accusations of vote-buying to bring along a number of otherwise reluctant Republicans. Compromises resulted in lawmakers opting to exempt out their counties, including Hamilton County.
But this year, Senate Education Committee Chair Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, angry over what he said were continuing problems in a number of low-performing Hamilton County schools despite a special program that was supposed to help, brought and passed a bill bringing vouchers to the county.
The original law had drawn lawsuits from Nashville and Memphis as well as civil rights groups. It was finally implemented for those two communities in 2022 after the state Supreme Court overturned a lower court's ruling.
Lee's just-announced proposal will make 20,000 education scholarships available during the 2024-25 school year. The scholarships would go to lower-income students whose families are at or below 300% of the federal poverty level, have a disability or are currently eligible to participate in the state's Education Savings Account program for public charter schools.
In the 2025-26 school year, there would be "universal eligibility" for all students entitled to attend a public school.
Lee welcomed to the stage Brooke and Steven Edging of Hixson, whom he said will be helped by the voucher program.
Brooke Edging described to attendees how she and her husband Steven both grew up in Tennessee public schools. She said she taught at a public school for three years and her four children attended public school until this year.
"We have loved our public elementary school," she said. "It was just wonderful to have all four of our kids there."
But this year her eldest child started middle school and Edging said she noticed a "big change in her and her relationship with school.
"She wasn't challenged, she was very distracted by students' behavioral problems," Edging said. "And she was no longer my child who loved school."
Edging said when her daughter said she didn't want her brother to go to the school, she "knew it was time" to make a change.
Her husband said the family was looking at another school, but it was expensive. And then the couple learned that Tennessee lawmakers had passed a voucher bill for Davidson and Shelby counties.
"We were actually praying it would come to Hamilton County. and it did, praise the Lord, which gave us the opportunity to give our children the freedom to get the education we know they need," Steven Edging added, noting all four of the couple's children now attend a private school. "It's been a huge blessing, and we're grateful to the governor and everyone."
Lee weighed in, saying he had long hoped "for this day and this opportunity" for children in the state.
"I saw it a dozen years ago, how much we needed this to happen in our state," he said. "Imagined that it would be possible, and we have worked very hard."
Tennessee Education Association Chair Tonya Coats criticized the governor's latest effort, saying it would serve to undermine public education.
"Taking taxpayer dollars to fund private school tuition statewide would divert much-needed resources from our already underfunded public schools and threaten the strength of our Tennessee communities," Coats said in a statement. "Fewer students and less funding will put beloved neighborhood schools at risk for closure."
Justin Owen with the Beacon Center of Tennessee, a free-market think tank, thanked Lee for bringing the legislation.
"Parents everywhere deserve true educational freedom, and Tennesseans across the political spectrum agree," he said in a statement. "Our recent poll shows that nearly 70% of Tennessee voters support expanding our ESA program statewide."
Lee was joined on stage by Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, a fellow Republican who has already moved to create a similar program and praised Lee for moving on the issue as well.