Gov. Bill Lee’s proposed school voucher program, expected to cost up to $75 million in its first year, has left some Tennesseans wondering if the results would be worth the price — and whether low-income families would be left to compete for private school seats with those who have significantly more money.
“When I looked at the price tag on it, I had to sit back and scratch my head,” said Beverly Davis, a parent leader for a school improvement program in Memphis. “I’m looking at these rundown buildings our children are in.”
Reactions to the proposed education savings accounts — a form of vouchers — from those representing districts expected to be most affected by the program suggest a wave of new opposition. That’s on top of a history of suspicion about state funding for private schools or for homeschooling.
The plan released Thursday by Lee’s staff would make families of four earning up to about $92,000 — more than double Memphis’ median income — eligible for $7,300 in taxpayer money that could be used for more than just private school tuition. Other qualified expenses include uniforms, transportation to private schools, online courses, tutoring, or homeschool curriculums. The income threshold is double that required for reduced-price school lunches under federal guidelines, but Lee’s team did not elaborate on why they settled on that amount.
Indiana, home of the nation’s largest program that funnels some taxpayer dollars to private school tuition, uses the same income rules. That state’s program, now in its eighth year, is set to spend $160 million for about 36,000 students this school year. About two-thirds of students in the program are from low-income families.
Under Tennessee’s proposal, families zoned to districts where there are more than three schools in the state’s bottom 10 percent are eligible, if they meet the income requirements. Currently, that would affect Shelby County Schools, Metro Nashville Public Schools, Hamilton County Schools, Knox County Schools, Jackson-Madison County School System, and the state-run Achievement School District.
Some Tennesseans say the income threshold makes the education savings accounts appealing to more families for which private school was already within reach, compared to students from low-income families who may be looking to escape low-performing schools. Tuition at Memphis independent schools can exceed $20,000 for upper grades.
“I was surprised that the income levels were what they said,” said a Memphis parent, Tracy O’Connor, whose four children attend public schools. “Now this seems more like a subsidy than a real way out.”
Lee’s proposal to launch the voucher program in the fall of 2021 is expected to be discussed in legislative committees next week.
Sarah Carpenter, the executive director of parent advocacy group Memphis Lift, is concerned the higher income threshold would dilute benefits of the program for those who would need it most.
“We have to read more about this for ourselves to figure out if it’s best for low-income parents and low-income communities. If it’s not, I won’t be behind it,” said Carpenter, who met with the governor earlier this week and remains undecided about his proposal.
After reading the 16-page draft bill amendment, Dale Lynch, the leader of a statewide group for district superintendents, said he’s more confused now than when Lee first announced a proposal was coming during his State of the State speech March 4.
“I think I have a lot more questions than I have answers” on issues, such as funding specifics and which private schools would be eligible, he said. “When I was reading the amendment, I thought this was going to impact students in low-performing schools. [But] you could have students in some of the highest-performing schools in Tennessee, but would be allowed to take this education savings account or voucher.”
If the number of applicants exceeds the state’s limit, a lottery would give priority to students who have a sibling in the program or are zoned to one of Tennessee’s lowest performing schools.
Davis, the parent leader, said she wished Lee, just two months into his first term, had spent more time in underperforming schools to understand the challenges they face. She also worried that opening up the program to families with higher incomes would push out students from low-income families from consideration.
“If you had a low-income parent trying to get themselves in a private school it would come down to: as a private school, would you accept a low-income child or would you accept someone with middle income who you know would be supported by parents?”
Gini Pupo-Walker, senior director of education policy at Conexión Américas and a Nashville school board member, said the income threshold contradicts the main argument supporters of voucher programs have trumpeted for years.
“This has been marketed as expanding options for low-income students,” Pupo-Walker said. “But raising the minimum income requirement opens this to families who could potentially afford to send their children to private schools without the help.”
She added that she was pleased to see students attending private school through the program would be required to take TNReady state assessments for math and English under Lee’s proposal.
“The research on [education savings accounts] is just not out there, and the the research on vouchers is inconclusive,” Pupo-Walker said. “This is a lot of money, millions of dollars, to help a small subset of kids, and accountability on whether it is benefiting children will be essential.”
A leader of one pro-voucher group was glad to see Lee’s proposal expand beyond low-income families, but felt it didn’t go far enough. “What’s happening in Tennessee seems like a huge opportunity that wasn’t taken advantage of,” said Robert Enlow of the Indianapolis-based EdChoice, which advocates for voucher and education savings account programs nationwide. “Instead of saying all kids deserve opportunity, you are just trying to say these kids in these failing districts deserve opportunity.”
Beth Brown, president of Tennessee’s largest teacher organization that has opposed vouchers in any form, said it is concerning that the bill does not specify that students must attend low-performing schools to be eligible. A student attending a high-performing school in a qualifying district would be eligible for Lee’s program.
“We’ve been hearing this is for students at low-performing schools from low-income areas, but that’s not at all the case,” Brown said. “Not to mention that this language doesn’t cover full tuition, transportation or books at these schools. And there’s nothing in the law that says private schools have to consider all students or lower tuition.”
The leader of a pro-voucher group once led by Lee’s policy director reiterated his support of education savings accounts Friday, but declined to comment on the eligibility details.
The proposal “will increase school choice, encourage innovation, drive competition, and open doors for children who have for too long been stuck in a system that has failed them,” Shaka Mitchell, the Tennessee Director for the American Federation for Children, told Chalkbeat via email. “We are working with Gov. Lee and the General Assembly to effectively implement this expanded Education Savings Account program and ensure every child in Tennessee has access to a high quality education.”
For her part, Tiffany Whosis wrote on Facebook that she would be interested in looking into the program for her family, noting: “My children do extremely well in school and I would love for them to be challenged,” she said. “Unfortunately I can’t afford a more challenging private school, they can’t earn athletic scholarships, and we don’t live in an area that offers magnet schools.”
A state House subcommittee on curriculum, testing, and innovation will take the first look at Lee’s proposal on Tuesday.