School choice is the policy debate surrounding using public education funds to allow students to attend a range of alternatives to traditional public schools, which has become more widespread in the United States over the past few years.
Mr. Lee, together with Republican Arkansas Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders, unveiled the Education Freedom Scholarship Act, a transformative approach to school choice in Tennessee that he hopes the state legislature, which consists of a Republican supermajority friendly to the governor, will pass next year.
This legislation, if passed, will significantly expand educational options for families across the state, marking a paradigm shift in how education is approached and delivered.
This comes at the same time legislative leaders have been exploring options on whether or not Tennessee could reject federal education funding in lieu of state-level funding to avoid federal dollars with strings attached to it.
The Vision Behind the ActMr. Lee opened the announcement by emphasizing the importance of educational freedom, something his administration has pushed for since he came into office in 2019.
Lee remarked: “Each one of these parents knows firsthand what it means to have education freedom for their children. And how their kids, if they’re allowed to pick the right school, can succeed. That’s what today is all about—access to high-quality education has the power to change the trajectory of a child’s life forever.”
Joining Lee was Mrs. Sanders, who after her first few months in office, signed universal school choice into law in her state.
“There is an absolute conservative education revolution happening in our country,” she said at the announcement. “In just my first few months in office, I signed legislation called the Arkansas Learns into law. It was the single largest overhaul of our school system in recent history.”
She continued, saying a key aspect of the legislation she signed was the state’s “education freedom accounts.”
The Act UnveiledMr. Lee articulated the essence of the Act, saying, “Access to high-quality education has the power to change the trajectory of a child’s life forever. We need to give those parents choices.” He outlined the Act’s structure, which, according to the governor’s new website, will unfold over the next few years.
In the 2024-25 school year, approximately 20,000 scholarships will be available, half reserved for students meeting specific criteria like economic status or disability, and the rest to a broader student pool, the website proposes.
For the 2025-26 school year and beyond, universal eligibility will be implemented, with priority given to currently enrolled, low-income, and public school students if demand exceeds funding.
Support from Legislative LeadersState Speaker Cameron Sexton and Lieutenant Governor Randy McNally lent their support in brief speeches at the announcement.
“We can all agree that every child should have an opportunity for a quality education,” Mr. Sexton stated. “It’s really incumbent upon us to make sure that children have access to a quality education that meets their individual needs.”
Mr. McNally had a similar sentiment, stating, “Working to expand the educational choices parents and students have available to them is always a worthy goal.”
Personal Testimonies: The Impact of ChoiceTestimonial videos on the governor’s new “TN Education Freedom” website highlight stories of parents who have benefited from the current school choice program in Tennessee, which is limited to three of the largest school districts in Memphis, Nashville and Chattanooga—which was just added by the legislature this year.
Arieale Munson, a parent benefiting from the existing choice program in Memphis, shared her personal story.
“I was the first parent in Shelby County to receive the Education Savings Program,” she said. “My son, he wants to be a paleontologist. At the school that he attends, he’s able to go to the outdoor club, where he gets to go out and look for fossils and archives. He gets to swim, has lacrosse, tennis, soccer, and he also is learning life skills.”
The Edging family from Chattanooga also shared their experience.
A Future-Focused InitiativeConcluding the announcement, Mr. Lee underscored the broader implications, stating: “We can have the best public school systems in the country and provide choice for every Tennessee family... It’s about a child and about their future and about the opportunity for the children that are in K through 12 today that will be leading this state in the years to come.”
“In Tennessee, we can have success in public and private schools,” Speaker Sexton said at the announcement this week. “As the governor said, it’s not an either/or question. We’re going to continue to invest in public education in our state, but at the same time, we should empower parents and give them the ability to choose what is best for their child.”
If implemented, Tennessee would become the 10th state to offer universal school choice options. According to the governor’s office, 31 states offer some school choice options while 9 currently have universal school choice.