Gov. Bill Lee says Tennessee has enough funding to develop its new education voucher program in time for a launch late next summer, one year earlier than required under a new state law.
The legislature approved $770,000 this year for startup expenses as lawmakers gave the state education department a two-year deadline to enroll students in the program.
However, the administration chose not to begin stockpiling money to help offset expected per-pupil losses to school districts in Memphis and Nashville, where eligible families could choose to leave public schools and use taxpayer money to pay for private school tuition and other education expenses. At the time, the general consensus on Capitol Hill was that the program would launch in time for the 2021-22 school year.
Chalkbeat confirmed this week that the Republican governor recently directed the department to work toward kicking off the program a year earlier — in time for the 2020-21 school year.
“The earlier we give a higher quality education to children in this state, the better,” Lee told reporters Thursday when asked about the expedited timeline.
Lee said the state, which began its new fiscal year on July 1, has enough money to start building the program and pledged more funding as needed. The legislature will approve a new budget next year before the 2020-21 school year.
“We feel confident based on the timeline — and when we think this will roll out and the way the expenses will be used — that the funding will be there to get it done,” he said.
His initial proposed budget set aside $25 million this year to be used eventually to reimburse school districts for their losses once the program begins. However, he later shifted the allocation to combat hepatitis C in the state’s prisons, explaining that the voucher money wouldn’t be needed this fiscal year.
Lee’s decision in recent weeks to work toward a 2020 voucher rollout caught even some staff members in his education department off guard.
Commissioner Penny Schwinn said this week that her team is in talks with the state Board of Education to “ensure a smooth rollout.” She also named her new deputy commissioner, Amity Schuyler, as project manager.
“The governor has been very clear about his sense of urgency to make sure kids have big options,” Schwinn said, “and we are working to make that happen.”