After court rulings, Tennessee governor wastes no time rolling out voucher program for private schools

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Less than a week after judges allowed Tennessee to resume work on its long-stalled private school voucher program, the program’s website has come back to life and forms are available online for families. and private schools in Memphis and Nashville interested in participating.

Last week, Governor Bill Lee announced that more than 600 families had filled out the form and that more than 40 private schools in the two cities had pledged to reserve places for them when the school year begins in three weeks.

“There was a dire need for school choice in 2019, and finally, parents in Memphis and Nashville won’t have to wait another day to choose the best education for their children,” Lee said in a statement. communicated.

The July 13 court order lifted a precedent that prevented the program from launching as originally planned in 2020. Within hours, Lee ordered his administration to expedite the rollout of the program, despite the tight schedule and legal efforts opponents of the vouchers seeking to block the start again.

Lee, who met with private school officials in Memphis on Wednesday, even surprised his own education department by announcing that work would resume immediately “to help eligible parents enroll this school year.”

The flurry of activity shows Lee’s determination to quickly enroll as many students as possible — up to the 5,000 allowed in the first year — after two years of delays and fierce legal battles over the state’s voucher law. . Tennessee lawmakers had debated the vouchers for more than a decade before a GOP-controlled legislature passed Lee’s 2019 college savings account proposal with a dramatic and very thin vote in the House.

Pick up the pace

Tennessee has been a battleground in the national fight between those who want to use taxpayer dollars to give parents more choice in education and others who say this approach diverts money from public schools. already underfunded.

Leaders of the American Federation for Pro-Voucher Children have been key allies of the Republican governor in lobbying for the state voucher law and promoting the program, including arranging Wednesday’s meeting between Lee and about 45 heads of private establishments in the Memphis area.

The rally took place at St. Benedict at Auburndale High School, a Catholic campus in the mostly white, affluent suburb of Cordova, east of Memphis, where tuition costs more than $13,000 a year. The taxpayer-funded Right Way would provide about $8,000 this year to help families with expenses, including tuition, fees, textbooks, computers, exams and tutoring at accredited private schools. .

Asked by reporters later about how families could fill the void, Lee said ‘every school has a different strategy’ when it comes to financial aid and many already offer scholarships to students who need help. .

The governor added that his education department was still working out many details.

In an interview earlier Wednesday with Chalkbeat, Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn acknowledged that her department was facing a heavy burden with the accelerated launch, starting with enticing students and private schools to enroll, then moving on. ensuring participants meet state eligibility standards. The state must also put systems and processes in place to redirect public spending on education in Memphis and Nashville, the only two cities where the program operates, to private schools and providers.

“We’re really trying to catch up and meet the expectations of the governor’s office on this,” Schwinn said, “and do it with a very clear direction that we’ll roll out when we feel we can meet our commitments to the families.”

State officials hoped to roll out the full program at the start of a new school year. But the timing turned awkward when the state Supreme Court upheld the voucher law in May and a lower court cleared the way for work to resume on the program just weeks before classes start on August 8.

Lee’s administration has opted for a rolling launch that offers families and private schools who want to participate three possible start dates to choose from.

“I think the July schedule is very difficult for us,” Schwinn said, “and so right now we just want to know how many parents are out there who might want to participate, and do they want to do it in August. , next January or August?”

Managing the program is another challenge, and Schwinn relies on Eve Carney, her district and schools manager, to oversee the application process and financial systems. The commissioner plans to hire an outside vendor to help with this oversight in the 2023-24 school year and said the department will be soliciting bids for this work in the coming months.

The department already oversees a statewide private school voucher program for students with disabilities, but it is small in scale and had more time to launch midway through the 2016-17 school year with 36 families. Even so, the program had some problems accommodating participating families, as it grew to 284 students due to staff turnover in the department.

Supply and demand

Another challenge is the ability of private schools to accommodate families who wish to participate.

For the initial launch scheduled for the 2020-21 school year, 62 schools had signed up to participate. But the pandemic has created huge enrollment shifts as more students than usual have moved from public to private schools, especially in Nashville and Memphis, where districts have stuck with learning the longest. remote and mask mandates. Students in the early years rotated the most, essentially filling those private sector seats.

As private school leaders try to work with Lee’s administration on an accelerated timeline, not everyone will get what they want, they say.

“Capacity will vary from school to school,” said Sarah Wilson, executive director of the Tennessee Association of Independent Schools. “Some schools, especially in the Nashville area, may only have space in one class, or none at all. Other schools have the ability to add multiple students and are interested in doing so.”

Brad Goia, who leads a coalition of independent schools in the Nashville area, said “the likelihood of adding students now isn’t great.”

“Private schools have generally benefited from a relatively strong economy and the popularity of Nashville, with a lot of people moving there,” said Goia, who is also principal of Montgomery Bell Academy. “Most, if not all, private schools are close to capacity. I’m sure some schools would see this as a good opportunity to perhaps broaden their diversity base. And a few would see it as a way to fill some seats.

His Memphis counterpart, Bryan Williams, said enrollment is “pretty much set for the year” at the city’s most competitive schools. But a small number of slots may be available at some schools, he said.

“There is definitely room for students, but that will vary from school to school,” said Williams, principal of Christ Methodist Day School and director of the Memphis Association of Independent Schools.

Williams said her school can accommodate between five and 10 students in some grades.

“If you spread those numbers across 30 schools, it can add up,” he said.

Private school admissions processes typically start a year before students enter, with most students applying by December and the most competitive schools setting enrollment for the following school year in mid-March.

“Right now, the ESA (education savings account) program doesn’t match the way private schools do admissions and enrollment,” Williams said.

A looming legal challenge

Opponents of the vouchers behind two state lawsuits are expected to seek a court order blocking the program for the second time while challenging the law’s constitutionality based on several remaining claims.

On Tuesday, attorneys representing nine public school parents and community members from Memphis and Nashville filed documents in Davidson County Chancery Court, notifying their intent to seek an injunction. And on Wednesday, attorneys representing the Shelby County and metropolitan Nashville governments in a separate lawsuit filed a similar notice with the court.

Both groups have asked for an expedited timeline for the court panel to consider their motions.

Asked Wednesday about the prospect of another deadly legal battle, the governor hinted that his administration would take things one step at a time.

“There have been discussions that this could eventually happen,” he said, “but we are currently only working on high-quality implementation of the plan.”