City school board to consider resolution opposing Lee’s voucher program

Published 4:31 pm Wednesday, January 17, 2024

By Buzz Trexler
Star Correspondent
Elizabethton Board of Education members are set to consider a resolution formally opposing Gov. Bill Lee’s proposed statewide school choice voucher program, known as the Education Freedom Scholarship Act.

The board will consider the resolution during its regular meeting at 5:30 p.m. Thursday in the Mack Pierce Board Room, 804 South Watauga Ave.

Among other foundational statements, the resolution cites the Tennessee General Assembly’s constitutional mandate to “provide for the maintenance, support and eligibility standards of a system of free public schools.”

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The resolution goes on to state, “public schools that provide a free and appropriate education for all, including students with disabilities, require all available state funding in order to continue to improve without necessitating an increased burden on local taxpayers or reducing services for students and … vouchers often divert public funds from the many who attend public schools to supplement those families who have already chosen a different option for the education of their children …”

Educators, public officials, and others across the state have likewise spoken out against the governor’s proposal making similar arguments, including a point the city school board is including in its resolution: public schools are fully transparent to the public and parents through the state’s open records and open meetings laws, and are required to adhere to state-mandated academic and financial standards. The resolution goes on to say, “all educational institutions receiving public funds should have the same accountability and performance reporting expectations so that parents and the public may better understand the use and efficacy of those public funds …”

On Nov. 28, Lee proposed a new statewide school choice program that would provide 20,000 students up to $7,075 each to attend private or home schools, with a plan to expand to universal eligibility in 2025. The current program, Tennessee Education Savings Account Act, was passed in 2019 and was restricted to Shelby and Davidson counties, but this year was expanded by the General Assembly to include Hamilton County. Knox County was also slated for inclusion in the most recent expansion but was removed from the bill.

While the Education Freedom Scholarship Act has yet to be filed, Lee told reporters earlier this month he will not commit to mandating that private schools receiving public funds conduct annual testing or adhere to what is known as the third-grade retention law. Still, according to The Tennessean, Lee maintained he was not going to compromise on the idea of accountability. “We’ve obviously introduced accountability measures. We want to make sure that our accountability measures that have been put in place stay in place.”

State Rep. John Holsclaw, a Republican who represents Unicoi and part of Carter County, including Elizabethton, has publicly opposed the voucher plan.

State Sen. Rusty Crowe, a Republican who represents Carter, Johnson, and Washington counties, including Johnson City, and serves on the Senate Education Committee, has said he was awaiting the filing of a bill and would “keep an open mind.”

State Rep. Timothy Hill, a Republican representing Johnson County and parts of Carter, Hawkins, and Sullivan counties, including Blountville, echoed a similar sentiment, stating, “I am waiting to see what the final language of the legislation is and seeking input from my constituents before making a decision on the Governor’s proposal.”

The Johnson City School Board on Jan. 8 passed a resolution saying it “unanimously opposes the Education Freedom Scholarship Act or any legislation or other similar effort to create a universal voucher program in Tennessee that would allow public tax dollars to be diverted to private schools or organizations through vouchers.”

On Dec. 6, 2023, the Greeneville Board of Education unanimously adopted a resolution opposing Lee’s proposal. According to The Greeneville Sun, the city school board officially opposed “any legislation or other similar effort to create a universal voucher program in Tennessee that would allow public tax dollars to be diverted to private schools or organizations through vouchers.”