The Honorable Rep. Cameron Sexton
Speaker of the House

The Honorable Rep. William Lamberth
House Majority Leader

The Honorable Rep. Karen Camper
House Minority Leader

The Honorable Rep. John Ray Clemmons
House Minority Caucus Chair

The Honorable Senator Randy McNally
Lt. Governor & Speaker of the Senate

The Honorable Senator Jack Johnson
Senate Majority Leader

The Honorable Senator Raumesh Akbari
Senate Minority Leader

The Honorable Senator London Lamar
Senate Minority Caucus Chair

CC: Sen. Jon Lundberg; Rep. Mark White, Rep. William Slater, Rep. Kirk Haston, Rep. Debra Moody, Rep. Scott Cepicky

Dear House Leadership and Bill Sponsors,

The Education Trust – Tennessee issued the following statement of opposition today regarding HB1183/SB503:

As a non-profit, non-partisan research and advocacy organization committed to promoting educational opportunity and justice for Tennessee students from pre-K to postsecondary, we write to you today to express our concerns with and opposition to HB1183/SB503, bills sponsored by  Rep. Lamberth and Senator Johnson respectively. While there are key differences between the House and Senate bills advancing in each chamber, we stand in opposition to both versions. 

As amended, these bills aim to greatly expand school voucher eligibility to Tennessee students, which would divert millions in state funding away from public schools and offer them as a taxpayer subsidy to private K-12 institutions. The Education Trust opposes the funneling of public money to private and religious schools through vouchers, and urges you to oppose the passage of the bills. 

Vouchers were instituted in the 1950s and 1960s by Southern governors to thwart mandatory school desegregation. The rise of private schools in the South and the diversion of public funds through vouchers was a direct response of white communities to desegregation requirements. The current components of both HB1183/SB503 echo the original intent of early vouchers, ensuring that the participating private schools are not subject to federal civil rights laws, can select the students they wish to admit, and do not face the same public accountability standards that all public schools face. 

Today private schools in Tennessee stand to gain millions in subsidies with the renewed voucher movement, which is orchestrated and well-funded by out-of-state organizations. The bills are moving forward in the face of formal opposition from dozens of local school boards and superintendents, most particularly those in rural districts. Both versions of the bills will have a significant negative fiscal impact on public education, and will drain state funds as universal vouchers expand annually. 

The Governor’s proposed budget allocation for vouchers would divert up to $141.5M in public taxpayer funds to private schools in the first year alone. Alternatively, $141.5M could cover more than 2,500 additional teacher salaries annually and help sustain the programming we implemented in response to the pandemic.

The proposed voucher value per student exceeds the amount that the state sends to more than 40% of Tennessee’s districts for each of their students. This sends a disturbing message that the state is willing to send more money per pupil to private schools than they do to our local public school districts.  

These bills are not in keeping with the course we have set as a state over the past several decades, and which has yielded improvement across all student groups. The current voucher bills do not purport to serve Tennessee students who are most in need, and they codify educational practices that are exclusionary and discriminatory.

Research and results in other states show that the design of these bills will benefit upper income families rather than families in need. They offer wealthy families already enrolled in private schools the opportunity to access public funds to pay tuition, regardless of their financial need. The $7,075 voucher is not considered payment in full to participating private schools and represents only a fraction of the actual cost of most private schools in Tennessee. It is unlikely that low-income families can cover the remaining tuition costs, fees, and other indirect expenses, making vouchers out of reach for most of them. Additionally, in states with universal vouchers, private schools raised tuition once their students had access, making schools even further out of reach for middle or low-income families. 

Rural students have the most to lose, and the current voucher bills do little to expand access to choice for rural communities in Tennessee. Rural districts are particularly vulnerable to reductions in resources due to their overreliance on state funding. A recent Sycamore Institute Dashboard on private schools in Tennessee reveals that 42% of rural districts have zero private schools and 84% have three or fewer. In order to attend, students would have to travel long distances or have no access whatsoever, while their tax dollars subsidize vouchers for students in wealthier counties.

Furthermore, these bills do not guarantee school choice. Private schools will continue to adhere to their admissions criteria, despite receiving tax-payer funded subsidies. They decide who may enroll in their schools, and can legally deny entry to students based on gender, ability, language of origin, sexual orientation, or religious and social beliefs. 

Of particular concern is the language in SB0503 which explicitly states that when a student without a Social Security number applies for a voucher then “that must result in such information being reported by the department to the United States Department of Homeland Security or to the Internal Revenue Service.” This is purposefully menacing to families, and a disturbing mechanism for immigration enforcement through education policy. 

Additionally, families with students with disabilities are required to waive their rights to protections under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) once they accept a voucher. These include the right to disciplinary protections, accommodations for instruction or assessments, or access to services laid out in a student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP).

Neither bill requires students to take the TNReady assessment or to publicly report the achievement or success of students at schools that accept vouchers. Simultaneously, HB1183 explicitly unwinds key elements of Tennessee’s assessment and teacher evaluation systems for public schools, reforms that once were touted nationally as meaningful and ambitious education improvement strategies.

Tennesseans need to know if this investment is benefiting students, and families must understand how well private schools are serving students with vouchers. If public dollars are to be diverted to private schools, they should be held accountable according to the framework we use to evaluate all public schools, and that must include the administration of TNReady and the publication of their results.

Student achievement ought to be the driving force behind any education reform initiative, and the impact of school vouchers on student success is dubious at best. Research does confirm, however, that additional investments in public education yield positive results for students, and for low-income students in particular.  We believe that the grass is greenest where it is watered, and as such,Tennessee must instead expand investments in proven strategies that are making a tangible difference in public schools and in the lives of our students most in need. 

Tennessee has been a national leader in dramatically improving student achievement in K-12 education, using research-driven and proven strategies that yielded a strong rise in achievement following the pandemic, surpassing pre-pandemic levels of proficiency in literacy by 2023. Our focus on targeting investments in evidence-based supports were heralded by national education experts. HB1183/SB503 will be a step backwards in the recent progress we have made as a state and serve to destabilize public schools and districts. 

The Education Trust – Tennessee believes that Governor Lee and our state legislature must set bold goals for all one million public school students in Tennessee, and invest our funding and resources toward increasing their odds of success. We remain committed to working with Governor Lee, members of the General Assembly, and the Tennessee Department of Education on serving and supporting all public school students in our state.

To learn more about Tennessee’s voucher bills please see our resources HERE.