Could Tennessee Be the Next State to Embrace School Vouchers?

A majority of the students who would be eligible for vouchers are from Memphis.


School vouchers—or taxpayer-funded subsidies that can be used toward students’ tuition at private or parochial schools—have long been an incendiary topic in education circles. Unlike many education-reform proposals, which, as I wrote earlier this month, seldom cut cleanly along party lines, vouchers have eternally fixed proponents and opponents: As a general rule, Republicans love them, and Democrats really, really don’t.

It’s School Choice Week (yes, apparently that is a thing, but then so is Talk Like a Pirate Day), so it seems appropriate to visit a long-running debate over vouchers that’s playing out right now in Tennessee, where a bill that would allow free and reduced lunch kids at the bottom 5 percent of schools in the state (many of which are in Memphis) to transfer to private schools with a $7,000 credit has made it onto the floor of the state House—a first after years of similar bills dying in budget subcommittees.

There are fierce—but by no means unfamiliar—opinions on both sides: Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, a Republican, supports the bill, along with many other (but not all) Republicans in the state. (Last year a similar measure that applied only to special-education students became law.) This camp believes that the vouchers—which could go to as many as 20,000 students within two years—give kids on “path to failure,” in the words of the bill’s main sponsor Rep. Bill Dunn, the “opportunity for success.” Rather than sapping public schools of the money they need to function, the vouchers would encourage competition that would benefit all schools, public and private.

Opposing Democrats’ and teachers unions’ arguments against the voucher program likewise have a familiar ring: that vouchers deprive public schools of already-scarce resources (several districts have recently sued Tennessee over funding), and—perhaps the oldest objection of all—that there’s not even any real proof that the less-regulated-and-accountable private schools are actually better than public schools. This Politico story from 2013 looks at the arguments in favor of vouchers—and the very questionable evidence behind them:

Taxpayers across the U.S. will soon be spending $1 billion a year to help families pay private school tuition — and there’s little evidence that the investment yields academic gains.

In Milwaukee, just 13 percent of voucher students scored proficient in math and 11 percent made the bar in reading this spring. That’s worse on both counts than students in the city’s public schools. In Cleveland, voucher students in most grades performed worse than their peers in public schools in math, though they did better in reading.

So will Tennessee become the next state to embrace the ambiguous voucher experiment? There are Republican supermajorities in both houses of the Tennessee Legislature, so it’s certainly not off the table.