By MARK COOK
Gov. Bill Lee on Thursday morning told members of the Greater Nashville Chamber of Commerce that he believes public schools are the foundation of Tennessee’s success, but that “every kid ought to have access to a good education.”
Lee, owner of the Lee Company and a Williamson County resident, says his interest in “Education Savings Accounts,” called school vouchers by some, was inspired by his work with his wife, Maria, in mentoring a student through YMCA Community Action Program, which serves at-risk and under-served youth in the Metro Nashville/Davidson County area.
A bill to bring an ESA or voucher program to Tennessee is working its way thorough the Tennessee General Assembly.
Lee said Tennessee’s education system had been making great gains, but the rate of improvement had stalled. He wants the focus to be on lower income families zoned to failing schools, and noted that his budget proposal includes $175 million in new money for education.
Critics of the plan, however, fear a slippery slope that could drain money from public school systems, including some people in Williamson County, where the County Schools and the Franklin Special School District both are highly rated.
“We believe that the historic accomplishments of public schools in Tennessee demonstrate the incredible job our educators are doing across the state,” JC Bowman, of the Professional Educators of Tennessee, wrote after the House Education Committee passed the ESA bill on Wednesday. “We acknowledge there are small pockets where success has not been as fully realized. That makes us even more determined to prove Tennessee public schools can meet any challenge and help prepare the necessary workforce to keep up with Tennessee’s growing economy.”
School choice advocates hailed the advancement of the bill.
“The House Education Committee advanced a bill that will give thousands of Tennessee students the opportunity to find the learning environment that works for them,” wrote Shaka Mitchell, Tennessee Federation for Children Executive Director. “We look forward to the House passing this legislation and giving Tennesseans greater freedom in their children’s education.”