84% of schools approved in Tennessee’s student voucher program are religiously affiliated

Staff photo by Olivia Ross / Morris Hill Baptist Church has temporarily hosted Grace Baptist Academy after Grace was destroyed during the April 2020 tornado. Construction on the new campus has begun. Grace is among the private schools participating in the Tennessee education savings account, or voucher, program.

Tennessee's school voucher program, allowing students to use public dollars to attend private schools, is rapidly increasing, according to data released by the Tennessee Department of Education.

The voucher program, which Gov. Bill Lee's administration calls education savings accounts, approved 2,586 students to access up to $8,200 in public funds to use at 75 participating schools for the 2023-24 school year.

The department released the data during a budget hearing last week.

(READ MORE: Private school vouchers have arrived in Hamilton County)

A further look at those schools shows that 63 of the 75, or 84%, are private religious schools. Most of them are Christian schools, but an Islamic and several Jewish religious schools were also approved.

The latest data comes as Rep. Mark White, R-Memphis, the House Education Committee chair, announced plans to sponsor a bill expanding vouchers to all 95 Tennessee counties.

Tennessee's school voucher program started during the 2022-23 school year after a lengthy court battle following its approval in 2019. Lee has strongly advocated for vouchers, making it one of his top priorities in the first legislative session after his election.

To pass the voucher bill, state lawmakers had to narrowly tailor it to only apply to Nashville and Memphis students, which tied it up in court. The law was initially struck down before the state Supreme Court revived it with a ruling in May 2022. Tennessee's voucher program targets lower-income families. Parents from a family of four must make less than $78,000 per year for their children to qualify for a school voucher.

(READ MORE: Gov. Lee, Sen. Gardenhire show interest in statewide voucher expansion)

During the first school year of the program, 707 students at 44 schools received approval to use the publicly funded program, according to data from the Department of Education.

Then, earlier this year, lawmakers added the voucher program to Hamilton County, where the state Education Department estimated around 300 students are using vouchers this school year.

Vouchers are the latest trend in Tennessee's education reform movement, which in the past has included a push for more charter schools and student testing.

Read more at TennesseeLookout.com.