Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee was set to announce new legislation Tuesday to expand school choice in his state to 20,000 more students next year—with plans to make a pilot program’s scholarships available statewide in 2025.
In a statement to The Daily Signal before making his scheduled announcement at 3 p.m. EST about offering more education savings accounts, Lee said he believes Tennessee has “made great strides in education, but there is more work to do.”
“To ensure Tennessee continues to lead the nation,” Lee wrote, “it’s time for a statewide school choice plan that empowers parents, equips students for success, and allows Tennessee taxpayers to decide how their own dollars are invested.”
Lee’s move follows that of Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, a fellow Republican, who in March signed into law a bill providing universal school choice in her state.
Since 2019, Tennessee has allowed low-income students in Nashville, Memphis, and Chattanooga to access $9,000 a year to pay for alternative schools and education opportunities. Parents of students in that program largely have been positive about it.
Arieale Munson, the mother of two young men in Memphis, told The Daily Signal that she was worried that high tuition would force her to choose between “feeding my family and our education choice.” After receiving the state’s scholarships, she says, her sons are flourishing.
In a phone interview Tuesday, Munson told The Daily Signal that her younger son in particular is thriving in his new school—giving him the opportunity to take civics and “Life Skills” courses while participating in a diverse range of extracurricular activities.
“We are so grateful for this amazing opportunity,” she said. “And we hope to see this program expand throughout the region.”
Unlike several states with voucher programs that can be used only for annual tuition costs—such as Indiana, Georgia, and Louisiana—Tennessee’s education savings account program may be used for curriculum materials, tutoring services, transportation fees, testing fees, and educational therapy services, including testing for learning disabilities.
Expanding Tennessee’s school choice program from its pilot test in three inner-city environments to a broader range of students would bring those benefits along with it, state officials say.
If the Legislature advances Lee’s proposed legislation in the next session, Tennessee could join the growing list of states that expanded school choice opportunities in the past few years—among them Arkansas, Arizona, Iowa, Utah, and West Virginia.
The Heritage Foundation ranks Tennessee as seventh in the nation overall on its Education Freedom Report Card, while the state’s “Education Choice Rank” sits at 17. (The Daily Signal is Heritage’s news outlet.)
Heritage’s analysis states that Tennessee could “improve its ranking by expanding eligibility for and boosting participation in its private education choice policies and eliminating unnecessary regulations on participating private schools, including the state test mandate.”
It is not clear how far Lee’s legislation would eliminate regulations such as state standardized testing mandates on private schools in Tennessee.
“My kids were in public school, private school, and homeschooled,” Lee told The Daily Signal. “Parents know best and should have the freedom to choose the right education for their child, regardless of income or ZIP code.”
“A quality education has the power to change the entire trajectory of a child’s life,” the governor added. “There’s no question, now is the time to bring statewide school choice to Tennessee.”
This article was modified within an hour of publication to correct the spelling of Arieale Munson’s name.
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