Opinion: Gov. Bill Lee’s education scholarship proposal falls far short on cost details and transparency

Photo/George Walker IV/The Associated Press / Gov. Bill Lee delivers his State of the State address in the House chamber on Monday, Feb. 5, 2024, in Nashville, Tenn.
Photo/George Walker IV/The Associated Press / Gov. Bill Lee delivers his State of the State address in the House chamber on Monday, Feb. 5, 2024, in Nashville, Tenn.

The optics of Gov. Bill Lee's education freedom scholarships program keep getting worse.

Not only did he not reveal anything new about the voucher program in his annual State of the State address Monday night, but the caption bills filed earlier in the state Senate and state House only give a brief description of the full intent of the legislation that will be given flesh through amendments.

The plan, as announced last year by Lee, would in two years offer state money to anyone who wants to leave their public school to attend a qualified private school. But both the potential cost of such a program and the siphoning off of students from public schools have alarmed critics.

Opponents also fear that legislators maneuvering behind the scenes this winter will determine the tenets of amendments for the bill, round up the votes to pass them in a subcommittee and then vote on them just as the public gets its first look at them.

That's no way to pass or consider legislation that could affect thousands of students and cost millions of dollars. Such discussion should be transparent from start to finish.

Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson sounded in a statement last week like the transparency already was baked in.

"The governor has gone to great lengths to meet with stakeholders and experts to ensure the language is solid, reasonable, and consistent with Tennessee's outstanding record of fiscal responsibility," he said. "I look forward to presenting the proposal to my colleagues in the Senate soon."

If stakeholders and experts have signed off on it, and the language is "solid, reasonable and consistent with ... fiscal responsibility," what's to hide in the process? Why not be above board?

House Democratic Caucus Chairman John Ray Clemmons believes he knows why.

"They clearly don't have the votes to pass this voucher scam," he told Chalkbeat Tennessee, "and they don't want to file a bill until they have the votes to get it through the committee process."

Catcalls from the gallery opposing the education freedom scholarships — as well as other proposals mentioned in Lee's State of the State address — didn't help.

(To digress, citizens are free to oppose any piece of legislation that is sponsored, or passes, but shouldn't we let the governor complete his annual address without shouting down his words? Interrupting his speech, as was done Monday night, and regrettably has been done in previous presidential State of the Union addresses, is the height of rudeness and incivility. And if we had to guess, it only hardens the stance by legislators against whatever policy the protesters are for.)

A draft version of Lee's education freedom scholarships program was inadvertently released last week, and its biggest concern to us was its lack of accountability. We're longtime school choice supporters, and advocated the pilot status of the governor's previous Education Savings Account (ESA) program. As a pilot program, it required students receiving ESA money to take some of the same Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program tests as public school students.

That would make it easy, especially over a period of time like five years, to measure the progress of students who go from public to private schools. At the end of the period, state education officials could determine whether the program needs to be scrapped because it isn't working, fine-tuned because it is working for some or expanded because it's an unqualified success.

We'd like to believe a local school board candidate who told a recent audience that in every state in which vouchers, or education-type scholarships, were used, performance improved. But that's not what we've seen. Some have. Some have not. Certainly, the jury is out on Tennessee's program because it has had only one year in which to compare students who moved from public to private schools in two counties (Davidson and Shelby). Hamilton County will be added to this year's mix of results.

If we could tell legislators anything, it is that Tennessee parents are in favor of school choice. But we wouldn't be surprised if they, like us, are skeptical of a jump into the free-for-all of anybody-can-go with no accountability. Of course, things can change as amendments are introduced, but the bare-bones proposal on the day after the State of State is not something we'd recommend.

At this point, frankly, it's just not a sound policy for Tennessee.

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