Lee launches plan for 20K K-12 ESAs across Tennessee

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(The Center Square) – Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee began his push for a statewide educational savings account plan that will include 20,000 ESAs in the first year and an unlimited number of ESAs after that.

That will include 10,000 ESAs worth an estimated $7,075 each for the 2024-25 school year for students at 300% of the federal poverty level, who have a disability or who are eligible for the current ESA pilot in Davidson, Shelby and Hamilton counties along with 10,000 more universal ESAs.

Lee also launched a website to promote the plan.

The cost of the 20,000 initial ESAs will be $141.5 million of state funds in the first year with that funding likely to increase in subsequent years.

“Working to expand the educational choices parents and students have available to them is always a worthy goal,” Tennessee Lt. Gov. Randy McNally said in a statement.

Funding for the ESA program will come separately from the Tennessee Investment in Student Achievement, the state’s K-12 education funding formula, House Speaker Cameron Sexton said. But it was not clear if the TISA funding attached to students based on enrollment would be removed from a public school they do not attend.

“We all agree that every child should have an opportunity for a quality education that meets their needs, and I strongly believe the ultimate decision should be made by parents, not government bureaucrats,” Sexton said in a statement. “This scholarship opportunity is funded outside the current K-12 funding model, TISA, which means dollars do not follow students.”

Earlier on Tuesday, Tennessee Democratic Party leaders voiced their opposition to the bill, saying it will further drain the resources of public schools.

“Vouchers don’t equal school choice or educational freedom,” said Rep. John Ray Clemmons, D-Nashville. “Private schools get to choose their students, not the other way around.

“Vouchers don’t give parents more rights. Parents actually give away many of their rights when they sent their child to private school.”

Lee made the announcement with Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders in attendance and opening the remarks, calling it part of a “conservative education revolution” to have statewide ESAs.

Groups such as Beacon Center, Americans for Prosperity and the American Federation for Children applauded the ESA proposal.

“AFP has been on the frontlines fighting for school choice and more parental control since our chapter launched in 2013,” said AFP-TN State Director Tori Venable. ”We’ve seen the shift through thousands of door-to-door conversations with Tennesseans: parents want more control and choices over how their children are educated. Giving $7,000 back to parents to select the school that works best for their child is a good start.”

Beacon Center CEO Justin Owen was a part of one of Lee’s TISA committees and the group voiced its support for the plan.

“Our recent poll shows that nearly 70% of Tennessee voters support expanding our ESA program statewide, including a strong majority of Republicans, Democrats, and Independents, while only 17% oppose it,” Owen said in a statement. “Beacon has long advocated for expanding parental choice, and we are grateful the governor is leading the charge to make it happen in 2024.”

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