The ability to attend a charter or private school could become easier for Tennesseans under Governor Bill Lee.
Lee said in his first State of the State address Monday night that school choice is a key theme for his first year in office.
“I believe highly, accountable public charter schools are a great model for expanding choice without sacrificing quality. And I have seen first hand how they can dramatically impact the life and trajectory of a student,” Lee said.
“In my budget, we are doubling the amount of public charter school facility funding. And I will support legislation this year that makes it easier to open good charter schools and easier to close bad ones.”
Lee said he wants the state legislature to create the Tennessee Education Savings Account by the end of the year.
It would provide about $7,300 to roughly 5,000 eligible students so they can go to any independent school they want to without their parents worrying about money.
Jennifer Owen, a Knox County public school board member, said a education savings account is a voucher program.
“It’s public tax dollars that are paid in the exact amount as the money that would go to a public school,” Owen said.
Owen was on her way to the capitol Tuesday to talk with legislators about the governor’s promises and other ideas.
Lee said in his address that he knows the common concern of an education savings account is exactly what Owen thinks.
“But my ESA plan will invest at least 25 million new dollars in public schools in the first year to fill the gap when a student transfers to another school. My ESA plan will strengthen public schools and provide choices for parents at the same time,” Lee said.
Owen questioned where that $25 million will come from. She said either way, it’s public money funneled into private institutions.
Owen also said that the $25 million could simply be invested into traditional public school education instead.
Lee, however, plans on adding $175 million to the budget for traditional public education.
Owen acknowledged that amount of money sounds significant. But, if and when $175 million is divided between the 144 public school districts across the state, it’s not that much.
“It’s significant to being able to continue programs, it’s significant to be able to keep teachers, it’s significant to be able to put that money into salaries to be able to attract great employees. But, at the state level, that amount is very small compared to what they could be investing,” Owen said.
Owen also said that students and parents might be able to choose what privately funded school they would like to attend, but the schools are also able to choose which students they want to attend.
“Large numbers of students return to the public schools after accepting a voucher, and when they return, that money doesn’t come back,” Owen said.
A voucher program, or education savings account, wouldn’t affect the one charter school in Knox County. Emerald Academy students attend for free.
A voucher program could affect private schools in Knox County.
Emerald Academy officials sent this statement to WATE News about the governor’s plans for charter schools:
“We appreciate Governor Lee’s commitment to providing parents with choice in their child’s education, specifically families in urban settings. We have seen firsthand that city parents care deeply for their children and the quality of their education, and giving parents an education alternative helps change the trajectory of young people in a positive direction.”
Lee also wants to allocate $12 million to help build more charter schools, and create a state charter authorizor to approve charter schools.
Owen said implementing a state position to approve charter schools is an overreach of state government.