Private School Vouchers: Another Voucher Program in Florida, a Limited Victory After a Decade of Attempts in Tennessee, and an 11th-Hour Expansion in Mississippi
This is the fourth in our series, Private School Vouchers: Analysis of 2019 State Legislative Sessions. Read the first, second and third parts.
Florida: Proponents Pass Another Private School Voucher Program
With five private school voucher programs now in place, Florida is the state where proponents of education privatization have been most successful. Republicans have held the governor's office in this state since 1998, as well as the State Legislature for most of that time, and they have aggressively pushed voucher expansion.
During the 2019 legislative session, Florida enacted its newest voucher program. This program makes vouchers available to middle class families earning up to $80,000 a year and is set to divert up to $130 million in public education funds to private schools.
Over the past twenty years, Florida has aggressively established the largest network of traditional, tax credit and Education Savings Account (ESA) private school voucher programs in the nation, diverting approximately $1 billion (and growing) in public funds each year. Still, nearly 90 percent of the state's children attend public schools, which are increasingly underfunded as Florida's voucher schemes grow.
Tennessee: After a Decade of Attempts, a Limited Victory
In Tennessee, voucher bills have passed three times in the State Senate over the past decade, only to stall each time in the House. But a new governor who supports vouchers, and a large class of new legislators elected in 2018, helped proponents enact a program this year.
On May 24, 2019, Governor Bill Lee signed into law legislation to establish Education Savings Account (ESA) vouchers. Under the law, starting no later than 2021, eligible families can receive up to $7,300 in public funds each year to spend on private school tuition and other private education expenses, such as transportation and curriculum. A number of concessions to legislators who were concerned about the impact on public schools, including rural Republicans, were made in order to pass the bill.
These included limiting the program, first to five larger urban districts and eventually to the state's two largest school districts in the Nashville metro area and in Shelby County, which includes Memphis. This occurred in the face of strong opposition to private school vouchers from legislators representing these two cities. The program is also capped at 15,000 students a year, down from 30,000 initially, over the five-year period authorized by the new law.
A coalition of teacher advocates, school superintendents, public education supporters, most Democratic legislators, and primarily rural Republican legislators had successfully prevented passage of school voucher legislation in Tennessee for more than a decade. It took the addition of several new Republican legislators elected in 2018, a larger Republican supermajority, and a new Republican governor willing to make school vouchers his first major policy priority to finally overcome this opposition.
Even with these larger majorities, the opposing coalition nearly prevented passage of the voucher bill and forced proponents to significantly limit the scope of the program. Also notable was the fact that several legislators, including Republicans, supported the school voucher program only if it was limited to students outside their district. During the final vote, a Republican legislator changed his position to "yes" in exchange for removing the school districts he represented from eligibility in the program.
Mississippi: An Eleventh-Hour Expansion, Despite Bipartisan Opposition
In 2015, the Mississippi Legislature passed, and Governor Phil Bryant signed, legislation to establish Education Savings Account (ESA) vouchers for students with disabilities. The bill provided $6,500 vouchers for up to 500 eligible students with disabilities to pay for private school tuition, therapy, and tutoring, and was funded for five years. During the 2018-2019 school year, approximately 350 students were participating in the program. Mississippi has two other limited voucher programs for students with disabilities, which together enrolled just over 250 students during the last school year.
During the 2019 legislative session, a bill to extend funding for the ESA voucher program passed in the Mississippi State Senate but was not voted on in the Republican-led House Education Committee. The program is set to expire in 2020. The chairman of the committee, Republican Richard Bennett, raised concerns about accountability and the effectiveness of the program and indicated there was little support on his committee to extend it this legislative session. However, in an eleventh-hour addition, the Republican Lieutenant Governor, Tate Reeves, included $2 million in new funding for an additional 300 new vouchers in an unrelated, end-of-session bill to fund construction projects. Despite some efforts to remove this new voucher funding, the bill with the funding included ultimately passed.
Many thanks to Jason Unger for compiling the research and drafting this series on 2019 legislative sessions.