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Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee delivers his State of West Tennessee address at the University of Memphis.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee delivers his State of West Tennessee address at the University of Memphis.

Public schools will not be harmed by voucher program, says Tennessee governor

Gov. Bill Lee doubled down Thursday on his plan to give “educational choices” — including vouchers — to students from low-income families in Tennessee’s lowest-performing districts, and he said that his proposal would not come at the expense of public school funding. 

Although his appearance in Memphis was billed as the State of West Tennessee, the governor’s address was virtually the same as the speech he delivered to state lawmakers in Nashville earlier this week. He reiterated that improving education was a top priority of his administration and that he wanted to invest more in vocational programs and school security, boost  offerings in science, technology, engineering and math, expand the number of charter schools, and, most controversially, create a voucher program.

The Republican governor has earmarked $25.5 million in his budget for vouchers that would give a select number of eligible families $7,300 in taxpayer money to spend on education. Recipients could use that money to pay for private or parochial school tuition, online classes, tutoring or other approved education services. The money would be deposited into so-called education savings accounts.

Eligibility would be limited to students from low-income families in districts with three or more schools in the state’s bottom 10 percent — essentially the school districts in Memphis, Nashville, Chattanooga, Knoxville, and Jackson.

Addressing concerns that the education savings accounts would siphon money from public schools, Lee said districts wouldn’t be hurt when students left for private schools.  

“For every dollar that goes with a child that leaves a school or a district, that district will receive a fill-in-the-gap amount of equal amount,” Lee said at a media briefing after his address.   

“That will go back to that district and that way the public school systems are not depleted of funding. In fact, it strengthens funding for public schools at the same time it provides choices for those that are in the lowest-performing school districts.”

Lee was short on funding specifics, saying only that the additional $25 million “comes from funding through the budget. We have allocated in recurring revenues to fill that gap.”

Lee added that the program will have safeguards to ensure that the money goes to education and to the people who are eligible for it.

“Accountability is very important in this,” he said. “The [state] Department of Education will outline and put in place guardrails and accountability checks that make sure that those funds are used only for what they’re intended to be used for, which is education.”

Lee also said he supports the expansion of charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently run by nonprofit organizations.

“We’re looking to create a state authorization that would make it easier to open good charter schools and easier to close those that are not performing. We need a high level of accountability in our education system.”

Lee’s education plans drew a mixed reaction among local education leaders.

Joris Ray, interim superintendent of Shelby County Schools, said he was “excited” about the funding earmarked for vocational education. He said that the district already has invested $8 million in that area and additional money from the state would be transformative.

Asked about the governor’s plans for vouchers and charter schools, Ray was more circumspect, noting, “I want to learn more about both.”

One of the local union leaders was more critical, saying that Lee’s plans would be “detrimental” to Shelby County Schools.

“It just seems like the war on public education is growing,” said Tikeila Rucker, president of the United Education Association of Shelby County. “It feels like we have to gear up and prepare for this war because if you’re going to allocate more funding for vouchers and charter schools that means Shelby County Schools will lose additional students and funding and continue to suffer.”

Rucker says she plans to go to Nashville next week to talk to legislators and hopefully the governor as well.

“It’s just disheartening that this is the direction that we’re going in,” she said. “We see that in other states that vouchers, which are now being called education savings accounts, are not working. But yet we’re going to bring it here and we’re going to do it ‘my way’ as he said.”

“So my question to him, when I get a chance to talk to him, is to get a thorough understanding of what’s going to make ‘your way’ different than it has been anywhere else?”