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Gov. Lee unveils ‘choice-friendly’ proposed budget including vouchers, charter school support

(Photo: Tn.Gov)

Proclaiming that “choice is good” when it comes to education, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee on Monday proposed creating a voucher program for students from low-income families and said he will support legislation to make it easier to open high-quality charter schools.

He also asked lawmakers to approve a 2.5 percent increase toward teacher pay, and proposed doubling the amount of state funding to help charter schools pay for facility needs.

Unveiling his first spending plan since taking office, the Republican governor set aside $25.5 million to create a voucher program that would let each eligible family receive $7,300 in taxpayer money to pay for private tuition or tutoring, online courses, or other education services. The money would be funneled through special accounts known as education savings accounts, similar to Tennessee’s existing voucher program for students with disabilities. In recent years, the approach has gained traction in states like Arizona, Florida, Mississippi, and Nevada.

If approved by the Tennessee General Assembly, the program would start with 5,000 students in its first year and scale up gradually. 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 affecting some students in Memphis, Nashville, Chattanooga, Knoxville, and Jackson-Madison County.

“Low-income students deserve the same opportunities as other kids, and we need a bold plan that will help level the playing field,” Lee said during his first State of the State address before a joint session of the Tennessee General Assembly.

Lee’s proposed budget and speech offered the first details of his policies since the Williamson County businessman announced he would run for office in 2017 on a platform of improved education, better jobs, and safer neighborhoods.

Some of his proposed new investments in education — particularly in career and technical education, school security, and more offerings in science, engineering, science, and math — were anticipated. However, the prospect of a voucher program remained uncertain up until the last minute, even as Lee has said frequently that Tennessee should give parents more education choices for their children.

In his address, Lee never used the word “vouchers,” which polls poorly among voters and is rarely used now by pro-voucher advocates. Instead, he talked about giving parents more choices through education savings accounts, also known as ESAs — verbiage that garners more public support.

He also offered an early peek at how his administration will seek to sell education savings accounts in the legislature, where an unlikely coalition of Democrats and rural Republicans have banded together for more than a decade to successfully oppose vouchers.

“I know there’s concern that programs like this will take money away from public schools, but my ESA plan will invest at least $25 million new dollars in public schools in the first year to fill the gap when a student transfers to another school,” he said, rallying lawmakers that “now is the time.”