NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Gov. Bill Lee said Friday that his newly enacted school voucher law won't go into effect next year if the state isn't ready, adding that he'll know by early 2020 when to begin implementing the program.
However, the Republican governor told reporters he remained confident the state was on track to expand education savings accounts in Tennessee.
"We're hopeful that it will be in place this next cycle and we won't compromise quality if it's not ready for high-quality delivery," Lee said. "The plan is that we will be."
Lawmakers narrowly pushed through the contentious voucher legislation during the 2019 legislative session that specifically stated the rollout would occur by the 2021-22 school year. However, Lee has since instructed his team to start the program earlier if possible.
Since then, education officials have begun working to set up the program that diverts tax dollars to private education and allows participating families to receive debit cards worth up to $7,500 in state money each year.
On Friday, Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn told Lee in a budget hearing that the new voucher program would cost a total of $37.5 million if 5,000 students participated during the first year.
This would require an additional $15.1 million in state funding in next year's budget to cover the cost of the voucher program and to hire 20 additional staffers.
Currently, schools get a certain amount of funding based on student enrollment. The concern had been that under the education savings account program, students who leave public school districts to participate in the voucher program would take that funding with them.
But just before the 2019 session ended, lawmakers agreed to allow participating public schools to continue to be fully reimbursed for losing students. Schwinn's $15.1 million budget request is needed to fully reimburse those participating schools — which are currently limited to the state's largest schools in Nashville metro and Shelby County.
Lee didn't ask any voucher-related questions during Schwinn's budget hearing, but later said he was making sure the plan would be "perfectly rolled out."
To help with that implementation process, education officials have contracted with Nashville-based design firm Circa to handle web development and materials design. The state has hired a part-time contract staffer who will be paid $50,000 over the next few months to help with the project, according to documents recently obtained through a public records request by The Associated Press.
Furthermore, the state has already drafted administrative rules for the program — which provide the guidelines to how the state will enforce the law — but those still need final approval by the State Board of Education.
Nationally, five states have passed laws allowing some sort of education savings accounts: Arizona, Florida, Mississippi, Tennessee and Nevada. The Nevada Supreme Court later ruled the state could not use school dollars to fund the accounts.