Lee's private school voucher plan could hit $125 million, impact 15,000 kids by Year 5

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee looks over flooding from the Tennessee River Friday, March 8, 2019, in Savannah, Tenn. Lee has signed an executive order making it easier for Tennessee to recover from the effects of serious flooding caused by heavy rains. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

NASHVILLE -- Gov. Bill Lee on Thursday fleshed out details of his proposed school voucher program with the experiment expected to cost taxpayers $125 million in its first five years.

If approved by lawmakers, the Republican governor's "education savings account" program would allow lower income parents in poorer performing school districts to use public tax dollars to send their children to private schools or home school them as well. It would also enable parents to use the money to pay for approved education expenses.

Parents would receive on average $7,300 to pay for approved expenses including tuition and school supplies.

Enrollment is capped at 5,000 students in the first year. But that increases by 2,500 the next year if the cap is met. By Year 5, the number of students could hit 15,000, depending on how many students actually participate.

Beginning in Year 6, the program could increase by 1,000 students annually.

Lee rolled out the proposal during his first State of the State address earlier this month, saying it could cost at least $25 million the first year.

An administration amendment expected to be filed shortly lays out far more detail for the program. Officials are looking at providing $25 million a year. The Lee administration isn't expecting any dollars to be drawn down until 2021-2022 school year -- Year 3 -- when the program actually begins with $75 million in the bank.

Students would be eligible if they are zoned to attend a school in a local system with three or more schools among the bottom 10 percent of schools as measured by state testing.

For now, at least, that only applies to school-age children in Hamilton, Davidson, Knox, Jackson-Madison and Shelby county school systems as well as the state-run Achievement School District.

Districts losing students would be "held harmless" from their losses in the Basic Education Program funding formula for a three-year after a student departs.

But efforts to learn whether public schools would be receiving any money out of the dollars being set aside for the vouchers hit an administration brick wall on Thursday afternoon.

The administration, meanwhile, hopes to head off issues experienced by some states where similar ESA programs have seen controversies erupt over waste, fraud and abuse.

Last year, The Arizona Republic reported auditors found $700,000 was spent by parents on items such as beauty supplies, clothing and attempted cash withdrawals.

In 2014, a payment to a health clinic led Arizona education officials to believe ESA money had been spent on an abortion, the newspaper reported.

Tennessee already has a special needs savings account program for students with disabilities. The Lee administration is anticipating the Tennessee Comptroller or local authorities would be keeping an eye on abuse.

The administration's amendment does require the state Department of Education to to adopt "policies and procedures necessary" to deter fraud. It lists an anonymous online fraud reporting service as a requirement as well as a telephone "hotline" to call in complaints about any abuse of the ESAs.

Education Department officials would also be responsible for conducting or contracting for random, quarterly or annual reviews of accounts.

Eligible students would include children enrolled in a public school in the last year or are entering kindergarten.

Household annual income could not exceed double the federal free or reduced-price lunch guidelines. For a family of three with at least one child, that would be an income of $76,886 annually.

Citing Indiana and Florida as examples, the administration believes a maximum of 75 percent enrollment in the program is likely. But if all the seats were filled, the administration doesn't think all the students will be switching from public schools. Some will come into the voucher program beginning with kindergarten.

Other provisions include:

* Private schools would have to agree to administer the state's TNReady exams in math and English in order to accept students.

* The state Education Department will post a list of participating schools and other information to help inform parents choices.

* A "parental satisfaction survey" is required, which would include recommendations, comments and concerns.

* Beginning in the third year, the state will produce an annual report containing information about students participating as well as aggregate student performance data on annual assessments.

* Participating schools must comply with applicable federal health and safety laws and certify they will not discriminate against students or applications based on race, color, religion, sex, disability or national origin. They must also conduct criminal background checks on their employees as well as exclude anyone not permitted by state law to work in a public school.

* The state "may suspend or terminate" a school or provider's participation if the department determines officials have failed to comply with various requirements.

* State Board of Education officials are to adopt rules allowing the department to suspend or terminate a school's participation due to low academic performance as determined by the the Education Department.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow on Twitter @AndySher1.