Research & Commentary: Tennessee School Vouchers

Published November 8, 2011

Tennessee state Sen. Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown) has proposed legislation granting tuition vouchers to students who receive free or reduced-price school lunches in four of the state’s most populous counties. About 200,000 students would be eligible for vouchers up to half of what each district spends annually per student—between $4,200 and $5,400.

The legislation passed the Senate in April 2011 but stalled in the House. It must again pass both chambers before heading to Gov. Bill Haslam (R), who has not stated whether he will support it.

Opponents of the measure include state teacher unions and most school boards in cities where students might receive vouchers. They complain it would take away public school funds, leaving schools without the resources to follow through on plans for improvement. They also object to private schools receiving public funds, and they claim private schools will reject troublesome or academically challenged voucher applicants, leaving public schools with more difficult populations.

Free-market advocates note taxpayer money ought to promote the public good, not systems that have demonstrated a poor track record at advancing it. On average, no more than half the students in any grade at any of the schools potentially affected rates “proficient” in any subject on state tests. They also point out that since the vouchers are worth just half the district’s per-pupil funding, the proposal could save taxpayers $400 million a year if only half the eligible students participate.

The following documents offer more information about proposed vouchers in Tennessee.

Tennessee Voucher Proposal Waits for Fall
More than 200,000 low-income Tennessee students would be eligible for a state voucher up to half their local public school’s per-pupil spending under a measure scheduled to go before the legislature in fall 2011, writes Joel Pavelski for School Reform News. Legislators plan to study Florida’s successful voucher program, which has boosted academic achievement and reduced state education costs.

TN Senator Brian Kelsey Proposes Private Tuition Vouchers
Tennessee families that can’t afford to pay private school tuition or move into a district with better public schools will benefit under proposed opportunity scholarships currently before the state legislature, reports MyFox Memphis. All students currently receiving free or reduced-price school lunch would be eligible—87 percent of Memphis students. The Memphis teachers union objects, saying public money should not go to private schools.

Paving the Way for True Education Reform in Memphis
A Beacon Center of Tennessee study finds school choice scholarships would put control over education in parents’ hands and boost academic achievement, based on results from similar programs across the nation. Voucher programs vastly increase parental satisfaction, improve local public schools through increased competition, and save taxpayers millions.

Schools Gear for Fight over TN Voucher Bill
Tennessee’s biggest school districts largely oppose legislation that would allow their students to take half their state per-pupil spending to any public or private school, reports The Tennesseean. The districts contend vouchers would take away state funds and offer students a “subsidy” and “bailout.” They also claim the vouchers are too low—ranging from $4,200 to $5,400—to reduce the price barrier for students hoping to attend more expensive private schools.

Big Four School Systems to Slug It Out with GOP over Vouchers
The four major school districts where students could receive vouchers under proposed Tennessee legislation have hired lobbyists to oppose the measure, notes the Nashville Scene.

Lessons for Tennessee from Florida’s Education Revolution
K-12 education in Tennessee experienced a “lost decade” while reforms led to extraordinary K-12 achievement gains in Florida, notes a study by the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice and the Beacon Center of Tennessee. Comparing fourth-grade reading scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the study found Florida’s students, who had ranked behind Tennessee in 1998, gained 20 points—the equivalent of two grade levels—to best Tennessee’s scores by nine points. On average, Florida’s Hispanic students outperform all Tennessee students.


Nothing in this Research & Commentary is intended to influence the passage of legislation, and it does not necessarily represent the views of The Heartland Institute. For further information on this and other topics, visit the School Reform News Web site at, The Heartland Institute’s Web site at, and PolicyBot, Heartland’s free online research database, at 

If you have any questions about this issue or The Heartland Institute, contact Heartland education policy research fellow Joy Pullmann, at 312/377-4000 or [email protected].