NASHVILLE, Tenn. — U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said Monday that she’s encouraged by Tennessee’s latest push to expand school vouchers throughout the state, adding that she’s cheering on lawmakers to make the right choice.
DeVos, a Republican who has long advocated for private school vouchers, met with newly elected Republican Gov. Bill Lee and other top GOP and education leaders in a closed-door meeting at the statehouse before visiting one of Nashville’s charter schools.
“School choice and education freedom is on the march and I’m excited about what Tennessee is debating and talking about doing the right thing for every kid and every kid’s future in Tennessee,” DeVos told reporters.
Lee is urging lawmakers to back a five-year $125 million proposal that would boost the number of parents who can use education savings accounts to pay tuition at private elementary and secondary schools. The plan is still making its way through the committee process and has yet to make it to either the full House or Senate floor for debate.
If approved, families in five low-performing school districts across the state could receive up to $7,300 in state funds if they meet certain low-income thresholds.
Under the latest version, families would have to provide a birth certificate, driver’s license, passport or some other sort of government documentation for their children participating in the education savings account plan.
The change has sparked concern from opponents who argue schools are only allowed to ask for documents that prove the student lives in the district — something simple, like a utility bill — but not for documents that would discourage immigrant families from enrolling in schools.
On Monday, however, DeVos demurred from weighing in on the matter.
“I think that’s a matter for Tennessee to debate and grapple with, and clearly that is ongoing right now,” she said.
Education savings accounts are different from a traditional school voucher, which allows public dollars to be spent on private schools. Instead, the accounts can be used more liberally because families can use the public funds to pay for not only tuition but also school supplies, transportation, college savings and other approved expenses.
Currently, five states allow some sort of ESA: Arizona, Florida, Mississippi, Tennessee and North Carolina. The Nevada Supreme Court struck down its state’s law after ruling that the funding mechanism was unconstitutional.
In Tennessee, the existing program is fairly small. Parents of students with certain disabilities can withdraw their children from public school and then receive up to $6,000 to pay for private educational services