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Tennessee’s statewide school voucher bill dead, but not forgotten

Tennessee’s top lawmakers unfurled the banner on an “education freedom scholarship” for statewide private school vouchers in a highly anticipated event last November. 

Vouchers had long been a legislative dream of Gov. Bill Lee, who first introduced a similar bill in 2019. But what made the November event different was the four most powerful members of the state House and Senate backed the concept of statewide vouchers, a change for Republican House Speaker Cameron Sexton of Crossville and Republican Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson. 

Lee admitted Monday his statewide voucher dream is over for the year but promised to keep working to pass the program in 2025. The Franklin Republican, in his second term, noted he is “extremely disappointed” for families who won’t be able to take advantage of public funds to enroll in private schools.

I think we couldn’t find the path forward in this session. A lot of times it takes a couple of sessions to get something done,” Lee said during a short press conference at Volunteer State Community College in Gallatin. 

The governor acknowledged differences between his bills and separate versions proposed by the House and Senate couldn’t be worked out, “and there wasn’t enough time” to reach an agreement.

Three versions of the school voucher plan were moving through the Capitol, one from each chamber and a third from Lee. All started with offering 20,000 scholarships worth $7,200 for parents to send their kids to private school, costing around $145 million.

From there, the plans varied widely as lawmakers in both chambers put forward drastically different bills. The House wanted public school sweeteners such as less student testing, boosts to teacher insurance and extra school building funds to pass it, while the Senate couldn’t stomach those incentives, particularly on the testing side. Senators also sought transfers from district to district, a sticking point for House members. 

Lee tried to bring lawmakers at the beginning to reach a compromise, but he couldn’t break the impasse, as lawmakers hurled towards the final days of the 2024 legislative session. 

The voucher legislation became increasingly doomed as the session went on, as both sides of the political aisle squeezed lawmakers on the issue. Teachers and school boards vocally opposed vouchers, as did the anti-establishment wing of the Republican Party, which includes groups such as Tennessee Stands and the Constitutional Republicans. 

Money and vague threats from groups outside Tennessee were among the only things propping up the legislation. 

During the 2022 Republican primaries, Americans for Prosperity, Tennessee Federation for Children, TennesseeCan and Tennesseans for Student Success flexed their political muscle, winning dozens of races and, , ousting a pro-public school Republican and backing a relatively unknown lawmaker who raised only a few thousand dollars. 

The attack ads strategy reminded any lawmaker who opposed vouchers that they could be the next target.

House Speaker Cameron Sexton, third from left, with Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Gov. Bill Lee and Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, voted against school vouchers in 2019 but now supports them. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Setbacks all around

The bill’s defeat is a setback for Lee, an already lame duck with ever-diminishing power over Tennessee’s General Assembly, but also one for Johnson and Sexton, who each hold higher political ambitions. 

Both men tried to ride the shifting political and financial winds tied to vouchers. The education reform groups have become a potent political operation in Tennessee, likely to influence the 2026 gubernatorial primary, a position long rumored to interest Sexton. 

For Johnson, the bill’s defeat puts him in a tough predicament for a potential 2026 re-election campaign. The majority leader — who many thought would have become the Senate Speaker by now — narrowly escaped a primary to his right in 2022, winning by less than 800 votes over Gary Humble, the founder of Tennessee Stands. Humble has publicly opposed school vouchers because of the potential negative impacts on homeschoolers and private school students around testing. 

The Franklin Republican, who represents the state’s top school district, could also face a challenge from the center for changing his mind from 2019 when he opposed vouchers in Williamson County, saying the district didn’t need them.

Go big or go home?

Three years after the state Supreme Court decided that Lee’s 2019 voucher plan could proceed, the program moved slowly but steadily ahead. 

Enrollment increased year-over-year, and lawmakers added a third county to the program in 2023. The plan seemed to be to expand school vouchers county by county, making them available to more people every year. 

Then, in early November, Republican Rep. Mark White of Memphis announced he would introduce a bill for statewide vouchers. 

Three weeks later, Lee decided to fully embrace White’s legislation and ditch the slow approach, holding his “educational freedom scholarship” event, proposing to offer them to every student in two years.

This means the bill’s defeat sets two potential paths for the future of vouchers: Go back to last year’s plan and slowly expand or unseat a bunch of incumbent Republicans in state elections later this year and try again in 2025, and hope pro-voucher groups can win enough races in 2024 to deliver a different matchup in the legislature.