School voucher ideas expose deep GOP divisions in Tennessee Legislature

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — With a supermajority grip over the Tennessee Statehouse, there are very few things Republicans can’t push through even with the harshest of criticism and public opposition.

Yet, after weeks of working behind closed doors on a sweeping school voucher plan that would give coveted public dollars to many more families to spend on private schools, deep divisions remain among GOP members on the best path forward.

Different proposals are floating between the House and Senate chambers, and Republican members are grumbling publicly about not having enough time to study the details. Tensions are flaring over accountability measures, and hundreds of educators across the state are pleading with lawmakers to spike the idea completely.

“This legislation before us is an opportunity for us to rethink education in our state,” said Rep. Mark White, chair of the House Education Committee and key sponsor of the House voucher bill. “We’re revolutionizing education.”

Educator groups and Democrats have remained consistent in their opposition.

“Vouchers will not benefit Tennessee’s students in any way, and they provide no real choice to Tennessee families whatsoever,” said House Democratic Caucus Chairman John Ray Clemmons in a statement. “They are nothing more than a scam designed to steal money from our underfunded public schools, enrich the rich, and blow a gaping hole in our state and local governments’ budgets.”

But Democrats lack the votes to have much influence, so the real legislative debate is within the GOP as various voucher ideas make their debut. While the bills are expected to advance in committees, the remaining differences likely won’t be resolved until the session’s final moments — which could be as late as mid-April.

It’s a much more murkier situation than when Republican Gov. Bill Lee optimistically pitched a major expansion of Tennessee’s voucher program back in November, when he argued that more families should be able to use state money for private schools.

This year’s voucher program is being billed as an “education freedom scholarship” to pay for tuition, a change from the “education savings accounts” of about $8,100 per eligible student that a smaller number of families can currently spend on state-approved education expenses for their children. The ESA program is much more limited than what this new voucher program envisions.

Lee initially backed the ESA program nearly five years ago shortly after becoming governor. Republicans also held supermajority control then, but many members had deep reservations over the potential impacts on their local schools. The proposal passed only barely, after some GOP lawmakers were assured it would apply only to Shelby and Davidson counties, which include the Democratic strongholds of Memphis and Nashville. The program has since expanded to Hamilton County, which encompasses Chattanooga.

The first state test scores of participating students have been lackluster, according to Education Commissioner Lizette Reynolds.

“The results aren’t anything to write home about,” Reynolds told lawmakers earlier this year. “But at the end of the day, the parents are happy with this new learning environment for their students.”

This time around, Lee and other voucher advocates are hoping to capitalize on the unhappiness many parents felt during COVID-19 lockdowns and the growing mistrust over what educators may be teaching inside classrooms.

Both the governor and Senate’s voucher proposals would set aside 10,000 vouchers for families anywhere in Tennessee whose income is at or below 300% of the federal poverty level. The House version would bump that limit to 400% of the poverty level — around $124,800 for a family of four — and make an additional 10,000 vouchers available in the first year.

If approved, each tuition voucher for the upcoming 2024-25 school year would be worth around $7,300, estimated to cover 62% of the average cost of attending a private school in Tennessee, according to state documents.

As for accountability, the Senate’s bill requires testing for students who receives the vouchers, but that requirement is dropped in the proposals drafted by the House and the governor’s administration.

Separately, the House version specifically requires that eligible students must be U.S. citizens — sparking legal concerns similar to those raised by critics in 2019 when the ESA plan was being debated, over how schools will verify such status.

House leaders also suggested overhauling standardized testing for public school students, changing teacher and principal evaluation requirements, covering more of the educators’ health insurance premiums, and phasing out so-called turnaround districts for low-performing schools.

Supporters argue that these additions could persuade school districts to support the voucher plan while providing a more wholistic approach to reforming education. But many legislators remain skeptical.

“I’ve heard from my superintendent and specifically, verbatim, he said that ‘There’s not much in the enticements that really interest me or benefit my school,’” Republican Rep. Bryan Richey, of Maryville, said in committee. “I’ve heard that from all of my school districts.”

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