Tennessee governor pitches school voucher expansion as state revenues stagnate

Feb 5, 2024, 5:00 PM

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Nearly five years after narrowly convincing lawmakers to allow a select number of families to use tax dollars for private schooling, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee on Monday stood before the GOP-dominant Legislature with a much more ambitious pitch: Make school vouchers universal throughout the state.

It’s a proposal that would be ambitious for any governor in Tennessee, a state that has traditionally been skeptical of using public money for private schools. However, this year, Lee is also facing stagnant state revenues and a staggering last-minute $1.6 billion expenditure regarding a business tax that was thrown together to prevent a looming lawsuit.

That’s because last fall, state officials became aware of a potential legal challenge over the structure of Tennessee’s 90-year-old franchise tax, with some 80 businesses that came forward to request a refund, according to the Lee administration. To avoid a potential lawsuit, Lee’s team wants to offer businesses an ongoing $410 million tax break and $1.2 billion in refunds to businesses.

Lee maintains that the state still has enough money to spread around more school vouchers to families, properly fund public schools, distribute pay raises to state employees and even set aside more money for the rainy day fund.

“Because we have budgeted wisely through years of extraordinary revenue growth, Tennessee is now equipped to resolve this tax issue and make Tennessee an even better place to live, work and raise a family,” Lee said in prepared remarks.

The governor floated his school voucher proposal during his annual State of the State address. The speech outlined his top priorities over the upcoming months, which include legislation designed to protect songwriters, performers and other music industry professionals against the potential dangers of artificial intelligence; and a bill to allow parents more control over their kids’ social media activity. Additionally, the governor said he wants to increase the number of state troopers and invest more in conserving Tennessee’s state parks and waterways.

In total, the governor’s office detailed a $52.6 billion spending plan for the upcoming fiscal year, a modest 0.5% bump from the year prior.

Yet Lee’s school vouchers push has quickly attracted the most attention. School choice advocates have quickly lined up to praise the idea, while public school advocates counter that expanding vouchers will only further hurt struggling schools.

Key GOP legislative leaders are largely on board with Lee’s voucher proposal, but it’s still largely unknown what the rest of the GOP supermajority will want to get the legislative bill across the finish line.

Back in 2019, when Lee first asked lawmakers to consider expanding school vouchers, the plan was to allow parents of students in certain low-income districts with three or more schools ranked in the bottom 10 percent to receive $7,300 from a government-authorized account to pay for approved expenses.

After much editing, Republicans just barely passed a program that only applied to Democratic strongholds in Davidson and Shelby counties, which encompass Nashville and Memphis. Lee’s victory came as some GOP members received assurances that it would never apply to their own districts.

The program, known as education savings accounts, has since added Hamilton County, where Chattanooga is located.

It currently awards eligible families around $9,100 in public tax dollars to help cover private school tuition and other preapproved expenses for up to 5,000 low-income or disabled students.

Under Lee’s ambitious expansion plan, the state would create a new tier of school vouchers called “education freedom” scholarships. The first year of the program would cost $144 million to offer 20,000 scholarships to Tennessee families. Half of those scholarships would be available to families who meet certain income requirements, while the rest would be open to anyone.

Programs funded through vouchers, tax credits or scholarships have been around since the 1990s and are now available in the majority of states. Whether students who change schools with the use of taxpayer money achieve better educational outcomes is in dispute.

Initially, the programs were designed for lower-income students, but that’s changing. Since last year, nine states have adopted programs that are phasing out, eliminating or significantly raising income limits.

United States News

Liam Lazo boards a diesel school bus near his home, Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2024, in Virginia Beach, Va. D...

Associated Press

Tired of diesel fumes, these moms are pushing for electric school buses

Areli Sanchez’s daughter, Aida, used to be one of 20 million American kids who ride a diesel bus to school each day. Aida has asthma. When she was little, she complained about the smell and cloud of fumes on her twice-daily trip. “When she would come home from school or be on the bus, she […]

19 minutes ago

Associated Press

Warren Buffett tells investors to ignore Wall Street pundits while paying tribute to Charlie Munger

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — Warren Buffett credited his longtime partner — the late Charlie Munger — with being the architect of the Berkshire Hathaway conglomerate he’s received the credit for leading and warned shareholders in his annual letter not to listen to Wall Street pundits or financial advisors who urge them to trade often. Buffett […]

1 hour ago

FILE -Stephen Parlato of Boulder, Colo., holds a sign that reads "Hands Off Roe!!!" as abortion rig...

Associated Press

Alabama IVF ruling puts spotlight on state plans for tax breaks and child support for fetuses

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — The recent Alabama Supreme Court ruling that frozen embryos are legally protected children is highlighting how support for the idea that a fetus should have the same rights as a person underpins far less dramatic laws and proposals from abortion foes across the U.S. Lawmakers in at least six states have […]

9 hours ago

This image provided by Tyler Watts shows Florida Man Games competitors, from left, Joshua Barr, Mic...

Associated Press

At the Florida Man Games, tank-topped teams compete at evading police, wrestling over beer

They rose up by the dozens from across Florida, caricatured competitors in tank tops and cutoff shorts, for a showdown that treats evading police and wrestling over beer like Olympic sports. Promoted as “the most insane athletic showdown on Earth,” the Florida Man Games poke fun at the state’s reputation for bizarre stories that involve […]

10 hours ago

Andie Nelson, right, embraces Brian Jaskot, both of Virginia, after their race during the 25 meter ...

Associated Press

‘Totally cold’ is not too cold for winter swimmers competing in a frozen Vermont lake

NEWPORT, Vt. (AP) — Plunging into a frozen lake and swimming laps may not be everyone’s good time but for winter swimmers who return year after year to a northern Vermont lake near the Canadian border, there’s nothing better. The 10th annual Memphremagog Winter Swimming Festival kicked off Friday with the 200-meter (218-yard) freestyle race […]

10 hours ago

FILE - A school bus moves up Rock Door Canyon Rd., in Oljato-Monument Valley, Utah, on the Navajo r...

Associated Press

Native American tribes gain new authority to stop unwanted hydropower projects

Federal regulators have granted Native American tribes more power to block hydropower projects on their land after a flurry of applications were filed to expand renewable energy in the water-scarce U.S. Southwest.

13 hours ago

Sponsored Articles


Collins Comfort Masters

Here’s 1 way to ensure your family is drinking safe water

Water is maybe one of the most important resources in our lives, and especially if you have kids, you want them to have access to safe water.


Day & Night Air Conditioning, Heating and Plumbing

Valley residents should be mindful of plumbing ahead of holidays

With Halloween in the rear-view and more holidays coming up, Day & Night recommends that Valley residents prepare accordingly.


Canvas Annuity

Interest rates may have peaked. Should you buy a CD, high-yield savings account, or a fixed annuity?

Interest rates are the highest they’ve been in decades, and it looks like the Fed has paused hikes. This may be the best time to lock in rates for long-term, low-risk financial products like fixed annuities.

Tennessee governor pitches school voucher expansion as state revenues stagnate