Education Voucher Program Approaches Implementation

July 15, 2022

Earlier this summer, the Tennessee Supreme Court ruled that the Education Savings Account or private school voucher legislation that passed in the first year of Governor Lee’s administration did not violate the home rule provisions of the Tennessee Constitution, despite the fact that it only applied in two counties. The case was then remitted to the trial court for the litigation to go forward considering the other challenges raised by the affected counties. In light of the Supreme Court decision, this week's trial court lifted the injunction that prevented the administration from implementing the legislation while the case was pending. In response, Gov. Lee immediately announced on Wednesday that the Dept. of Education would implement the education savings account program for this fall. As the legislation passed, it currently only applies in Davidson and Shelby Counties and would be capped at 5,000 students in the first year. There are still other claims to be litigated by these two counties, and separate litigation filed by parents of school children in those districts challenges the law. More information about the program can be found on the ESA program website.


Despite the fact that school will start in Davidson and Shelby Counties in less than a month, the Dept. of Education will now be trying to administer a program that could potentially involve 1,000s of students in Tennessee’s two largest school systems. The department is already in the midst of a public comment period on rules and regulations that were proposed this summer to implement TISA, the Governor’s new K-12 education funding formula. The deadline for comments on those rules is August 2nd. While that formula does not take effect until the 2023-2024 budget year, the legislation to implement TISA left many significant aspects of the legislation up to rules and regulations of the department.


All of these developments come at a time when Governor Lee has been facing increased criticism over comments made by one of his education policy advisors, Larry Arnn, the president of Hillsdale College. Lee was on the stage when Arnn made comments denigrating teachers and departments of education in colleges and universities. While claiming to support teachers, Lee has not publicly disavowed Arnn’s statements or his organization. In his State of the State address early this year, Lee announced a partnership with Hillsdale College and stated his intent to have the college open 50 charter schools in Tennessee.


At the very event when Arnn made the objectionable statements, Lee quipped, “I still think we need 100 charter schools here.” Numerous legislators of both parties have expressed their displeasure over the opinions expressed by Arnn, with Rep. Mark White of Shelby County, chair of the House Education Administration Committee, going so far as to say in a Facebook post that “When the General Assembly convenes again next January any hope that Hillsdale will operate in Tennessee has been shattered.”