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Autonomy vs. accountability: Not all Tenn. Republicans are on board with statewide voucher proposal

Not all Republicans seem sold on Gov Bill Lee's (center) universal school voucher proposal.
TN Photographic Services
Not all Republicans seem sold on Gov Bill Lee's (center) universal school voucher proposal.

Some members of Republican Gov. Bill Lee’s own party have raised concerns about the statewide voucher program he proposed last week.

If passed, the so-called Education Freedom Scholarships would begin in the 2024-2025 school year. Each one would give a little over $7,000 to cover costs like tuition, transportation, books and uniforms. Of the 20,000 available scholarships, 10,000 would be reserved for students who already qualify for the state’s existing voucher program, students with disabilities, or students whose household income is at or below 300% of the federal poverty level.

The remaining 10,000 vouchers would have universal eligibility.

Then the following school year, all 20,000 scholarships would be available to Tennessee students, regardless of their family’s income. The governor has said low-income students would be prioritized in awarding the vouchers. The money can be used for private, religious or homeschools.

Concerns from within the GOP

Republican Rep. Sam Whitson of Franklin, told the Tennessean that he’s worried the state will shell out public funds for vouchers without being able to track student progress.

So far, things like TCAP testing and school letter grades aren’t part of the governor’s proposal.

Whitson said the non-public schools that accept state funds should be subject to the same requirements as public schools.

But Rep. Scott Cepicky, who chairs the Education Instruction Subcommittee, said those details have yet to be worked out.

“So that’s going to be what’s in the sausage making,” Cepicky said. “That’s where a lot of my time and other members’ time up here (at the capitol) is going to be consumed talking to stakeholders, talking to districts.”

He said he wants to grant non-public schools that accept state funds as much “autonomy and freedom” as they need to improve student outcomes. It’s unclear how the state would measure that success without requiring certain data.

Worries about which religious schools receive funding

Sen. Richard Briggs, R-Knoxville, told the Knoxville News Sentinel he doesn’t want state funds going to an Islamic school in his area.

“We shouldn’t have taxpayer money funneling to Islamic education,” he told the paper.

Tennessee’s current voucher program for low and middle income students already permits them to attend a number of approved religious schools, including one Islamic school.

The newly proposed program would further expand the schools allowed to accept state funds.

Briggs also questioned whether private schools will follow recently passed laws on culture war issues, like banning books. Tennessee has also passed several anti-LGBTQ+ laws in recent legislative sessions that affect students.

“Are those same rules going to apply to private schools? Are we going to have any oversight?” Briggs said to the paper.

The governor’s bill has not been filed yet. Several lawmakers have said they need more details before they agree to support it. The General Assembly will return to the capitol January 9 for the next legislative session.

Alexis Marshall is WPLN News’s education reporter. She is a Middle Tennessee native and started listening to WPLN as a high schooler in Murfreesboro. She got her start in public radio freelance producing for NPR and reporting at WMOT, the on-campus station at MTSU. She was the reporting intern at WPLN News in the fall of 2018 and afterward an intern on NPR’s Education Desk. Alexis returned to WPLN in 2020 as a newscast producer and took over the education beat in 2022. Marshall contributes regularly to WPLN's partnership with Nashville Noticias, a Spanish language news program, and studies Arabic. When she's not reporting, you can find her cooking, crocheting or foraging for mushrooms.
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