Governor Bill Lee Proposes Ambitious Expansion of School Voucher Program in Tennessee
Funding education is set to be a prominent topic in Tennessee’s legislature, and Governor Bill Lee is proposing a significant expansion of the school voucher program over the next two years, aiming to make it available to all students in the state. Currently, approximately 2,000 vouchers are offered to lower-income families in three counties: Davidson, Shelby, and Hamilton, providing families with state funds for private school tuition.
Rick Musacchio, the Executive Director of the Tennessee Catholic Conference, shared insights into the voucher program from the private school perspective. Musacchio, who actively engages in discussions about education on Capitol Hill, notes the demand for choice among parents seeking alternatives not found in public school settings.
The Catholic Dioceses in Tennessee actively participated in the voucher program when it launched two years ago, opening their school doors to families seeking a change. With the recent addition of Chattanooga, the program has reached approximately 600 students statewide, distributed across Memphis, Nashville, and Chattanooga.
While Musacchio acknowledges that he doesn’t know if any voucher-eligible children have been turned away from their schools in the past two years, opponents argue that as the program expands, private schools might selectively admit students. Musacchio emphasizes that private schools have always evaluated all applicants, and school choice programs help determine compatibility between families and schools.
The current universal voucher program proposed by Governor Lee lacks specifics regarding student testing. Musacchio points out that private schools, including those under the dioceses, have employed the nationally recognized Iowa test for decades, advocating for accountability within the system.
Private schools can establish their standards for teacher qualifications, providing a flexibility not afforded to public schools. Musacchio cites data showing students in third grade in Catholic schools across the state testing a full grade level ahead on average, including schools with high numbers of English as a second language learners and those with a high percentage of lower-income students.
Governor Lee’s vision, named “Freedom Educational Scholarships,” plans to provide thousands of dollars per student for private school attendance, starting in the 2024-25 school year. While the first year targets students at or below 300% of the federal poverty level, those with disabilities, or eligible for the existing ESA pilot program, the plan envisions universal eligibility for all students attending public schools from 2025-26 onwards.
If Tennessee lawmakers pass this universal voucher system, the state would become the 10th to do so. Musacchio sees this expansion as a positive move, providing families with more choices in education. Governor Lee’s proposal aims to make private education more accessible for students across the state, ushering in a potential shift in the landscape of education funding and school choice in Tennessee.