Gov. Bill Lee’s proposal to bring education vouchers to Tennessee is an ambitious plan — but short on details thus far.
The Republican governor announced his “parent choice” initiative on Monday before a legislative body that has consistently rejected vouchers in numerous forms. He promised that his plan “will enable low-income students from the most underperforming school districts to attend an independent school of their choice at no cost to their family.”
The new governor’s tool: education savings accounts, a newer form of vouchers that are not limited to use at private schools and are the subject of inconclusive research. The accounts would provide parents with a debit card loaded with public funds to spend on an array of qualifying education services including tutoring, online courses, or private or religious school tuition.
Pressed for specifics, his policy advisers have remained mostly mum. Details will be revealed, they said, with legislation to create the program, expected as early as next week.
As supporters and opponents begin to mobilize for likely the biggest battle of the legislative session, here’s a look at the big things we know — and don’t know — about Lee’s proposal.
WHAT WE KNOW:
Enrollment: The program would be limited to 5,000 students in the first year, increasing by up to 2,500 students annually.
Money: The governor has set aside $25.5 million to launch the program, with each participating student’s family receiving about $7,300 in a special account to go toward approved education services. (Note that 5,000 participants times $7,300 equals $36.5 million, significantly more than the governor’s proposed allocation.)
Where: Students would be eligible if they attend public schools in districts with three or more schools that are rank in the state’s bottom 10 percent. Currently, that means students in Davidson, Hamilton, Knox, Jackson-Madison, and Shelby counties, as well as in the state-run Achievement School District, which operates mostly in Memphis, would be eligible.
Private schools: Schools or other education service providers must receive authorization to participate.
Oversight: The state education department would have authority to remove schools and providers that perform poorly.
WHAT WE DON’T KNOW:
Would school systems lose funding in the shift?
The governor’s advisers say money for the voucher program won’t take away from Tennessee’s Basic Education Program, the funding formula through which dollars for public schools are distributed to districts. They also don’t say exactly where the money would come from if the program expands later.
Voucher opponents believe that public schools ultimately will pay the price. “We know we have a very finite amount of dollars for public education, and it is not good for our schools when those monies are diverted. This is just a voucher scheme,” said Beth Brown, a Grundy County teacher who is the president of the Tennessee Education Association, the state’s largest teacher organization.
Would private schools have to accept the $7,300 voucher amount as the full cost of a student’s tuition and fees?
Tennessee’s previous voucher bills have made that a condition, but few private schools committed to participate if those bills passed and were signed into law. Most private schools charge far more and therefore might have to eat the balance, which isn’t good for their bottom line, said Sonya Smith, an education advocate in the Memphis neighborhood of Frayser. “Bill [Lee] is a businessman, and he wouldn’t allow somebody to come in and pay him less than what he said his company’s value,” she said. “That’s not a logical model.”
Would students with education savings accounts have to take the same state tests as their counterparts in public schools?
That issue has tripped up previous voucher proposals, in which many private school leaders were hesitant to be held accountable using the same measuring stick as public schools. But Shaka Mitchell, who heads the pro-voucher Tennessee Federation for Children, said other options exist. “We want to have a mixture of autonomy but also accountability, so that’s always going to be the needle we’re trying to thread,” Mitchell said. “Every school gives some sort of assessment that’s usually nationally normed. I don’t think anybody is shirking some kind of test data; it just remains to be seen what the instrument will be.”
How can Tennessee make sure that taxpayer money is only being spent on approved education services?
While Lee policy director Tony Niknejad has promised that the legislation will include strong accountability provisions, he declined to identify them. The void in information fuels concerns from lawmakers and stakeholders about potential misuse of state dollars in the hands of families with education savings accounts. For instance, a recent audit of Arizona’s program found that parents there fraudulently spent $700,000 last year on banned items and services, even after an audit two years earlier flagged similar issues.
“It would have to be a really tight bill for me to support it,” Sen. Raumesh Akbari, a Memphis Democrat, has said. “A lot of folks like the flexibility of an education savings account. But when you’re talking about public dollars, there has to be a measure of accountability.”
Who or what agency would be responsible for managing the program?
Tennessee’s education department currently oversees an education savings account program for students with disabilities, now in its second full year but with fewer-than-expected participants. But Lee could also look to Florida, an early adopter of education savings accounts, which uses a nonprofit organization to administer scholarships for Florida schoolchildren.
“There are already templates,” said Mitchell. “If we want to accelerate growth in Tennessee, there’s no need to rehash all the work that’s been done in other states.”
Senate Minority Leader Jeff Yarbro worries about what that could mean. “States that have opened the Pandora’s box on vouchers have been forced to create some type of bureaucracy to ensure that student funds aren’t used for fraudulent purposes or substandard education products,” said the Dyersburg Democrat.
A spokeswoman for the governor said Wednesday that more details will emerge when Rep. William Lamberth of Portland and Sen. Jack Johnson of Franklin, majority leaders in the House and Senate, introduce the legislation. They will use a vaguely worded bill that met the legislature’s bill-filing deadline and substitute new language to outline Lee’s voucher proposal.
Do you have other questions about Lee’s voucher plan? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Chalkbeat reporters Laura Faith Kebede and Caroline Bauman contributed to this report.