NASHVILLE — Gov. Bill Lee is rejecting what he charges is a "false narrative" promoted by critics who say his effort to expand private-school voucher programs to all 95 Tennessee counties will come at the expense of public education.
"I've always thought and always said and always advocated for having the best public school systems in the country," the Republican governor said on WCLE Cleveland's "Conversations with Steve Hartline" earlier this week. "We've put a billion dollars additionally for our public school systems in the last couple of years. We've elevated our teacher pay level to one of the top 10 states in the country. We will continue to invest in and work to make sure that our public schools are the best in the country.
"People have this false narrative that we have to either choose to give parents choices or invest in public schools," Lee added after touting his Education Freedom Scholarship Fund. "That's not true. We can have both. We should have the best educational trajectory for all of our kids."
The program would start small in its first year, limiting the vouchers, each worth $7,075, to 20,000 children whose parents or guardians want to send them to private school or homeschool the child. It would cost $141.5 million.
It would be expanded statewide in the second year, and thousands more families, regardless of income level, could qualify for the money to pay for private school tuition and supplies or for schooling their child at home. Critics charge the tab could hit upwards of $800 million.
House Democratic Caucus Chair John Ray Clemmons, of Nashville, blasted Lee's assertions about the impact on funding for the state's 141 public school systems statewide.
"Either he's lying through his teeth or he doesn't understand his own proposal," Clemmons said Wednesday in a Chattanooga Times Free Press interview. "The only people with 'choice' under his proposal are the private schools. They get to choose what students they accept. There is no way to slice this pie where public schools don't lose money as a direct result of a voucher program."
Others have hit the governor on that and questioned what accountability there is for private schools and parents who homeschool their children.
"There are nine states in the country already who have universal school choice — Florida being one of them, has had it for many, many years," Lee told WCLE. "And they've had choice across the state for many, many years."
The Tennessee Education Association's head, Tanya Coats, previously said in a statement that the legislation would "put our great public schools at risk."
A number of Republican lawmakers, among them Sen. Todd Gardenhire, of Chattanooga, who formerly headed the Senate Education Committee, said last week he told the governor he is a "firm believer" in school choice.
"But, obviously, the devil was in the details," the senator said. "But in the principle for school choice that he was promoting, I'd be supporting. But I have to see the details."
In 2019, his first year in office, Lee unsuccessfully pushed a publicly funded, statewide Education Savings Account program. But a number of his fellow Republicans, including Gardenhire, balked. In the end, GOP lawmakers passed a truncated education savings account bill, restricting it solely to Davidson and Shelby counties.
Gardenhire and his fellow Hamilton County Republicans had hoped a new Hamilton County program to boost scores at failing schools would work. In the end, it did not, Gardenhire said.
This year, Gardenhire passed legislation to bring the education savings account program into Hamilton County public schools.