Gov: No School Vouchers Approved Yet For Tennessee Families

FILE - Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee speaks Feb. 8, 2021, in Nashville, Tenn. Lee faces three Democratic challengers as the state's early voting period for the primary election begins Friday. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey, File)
FILE - Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee speaks Feb. 8, 2021, in Nashville, Tenn. Lee faces three Democratic challengers as the state's early voting period for the primary election begins Friday. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey, File)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee said Friday the state had not yet approved any school vouchers for families seeking taxpayer funds to cover private school expenses, even as students begin a new school year.

The Republican governor had announced in mid-July that the contentious voucher program would begin immediately, after the Tennessee Supreme Court lifted a key obstacle that had prevented its implementation for nearly two years.

The announcement left the state Department of Education with just a few weeks to establish an application process and vet qualifying families as the 2022-23 school year approached.

“There are about 250 families that have actually applied (but) those approvals have not been made yet,” Lee told reporters. “The process is underway.”

Known as education savings accounts, the vouchers would give eligible families up to about $8,100 in public tax dollars for private schooling tuition and other preapproved expenses. The program only applies to Democratic-controlled Nashville and Shelby County — which encompasses Memphis — after Republican lawmakers repeatedly amended the proposal to ensure it would not roll out in their districts due to its unpopularity with voters.

“It's really important for us was that we rolled it out timely, but that we also do so with real high quality,” Lee said. “And that’s what we’re attempting to do right now.”

The program is still facing a legal challenge from attorneys representing Nashville, Shelby County and a handful of families. However, just last week, a three-judge panel agreed to allow the initiative to roll out ahead of the new school year despite objections that it violated the state's Constitution. The judges conceded the state was rushing to get the program in place properly, but said those concerns were not enough to prevent it from moving forward.

A spokesperson for the Department of Education did not immediately respond to an email Friday asking when families might be approved for the voucher program.