Tennessee Senate Passes New School Choice Voucher Program, House Next

Tennessee is close to adopting what would be the 24th school choice voucher program in the nation. Today the Tennessee Senate approved SB196, the Tennessee Choice & Opportunity Scholarship Act, sponsored by Sen. Mark Norris (R), Sen. Brian Kelsey (R), and Sen. Jim Summerville (R). The sections below represent key parameters of this voucher proposal, including how many students the Friedman Foundation estimates would be eligible statewide. 


The voucher amount is worth the lesser of the following:

  1. the cost of tuition and fees charged by the private school where the student receiving a voucher attends; or
  2. the per-pupil state and local funds generated through Tennessee’s state funding formula for the school district in which the student receiving the voucher is zoned to attend. The state average for that amount is $6,400.


A student is eligible to receive a voucher if he or she is zoned to attend or enrolled in a public school in the bottom 5 percent of schools in overall achievement as determined by the state board. An eligible student must come from a household whose income qualifies for free and reduced-price lunch (FRL) (185 percent of the federal poverty level).

The program is capped at 5,000 students in the 2014-15 school year, 7,500 in the 2015-16 school year, and 10,000 in the 2016-17 school year, and 20,000 thereafter. If those caps are not met, students who qualify for FRL and attend public school in districts that contain at least one school in the bottom 5 percent will have the opportunity to apply to participate in the program. The Friedman Foundation estimates that 203,600 students are eligible under this proposal.*

Students will be required to first apply for a voucher through Tennessee’s Department of Education (DOE). If the number of applications exceeds the cap on vouchers available or exceeds the available seats at participating schools for any grade level, DOE will hold a lottery to award vouchers. DOE will give preference to students who are already enrolled in the participating school and to siblings of a student participating in the program.


Schools must:

  • annually provide notice to participate in the program to the DOE, including information about how many seats by grade level they would like to make available to students using vouchers.
  • be a category I, II, or III school in the state and comply with all health and safety laws applicable to such schools.
  • annually administer the state test or a nationally norm-referenced test to students who use vouchers and provide the test results to parents. If a participating school demonstrates achievement growth for voucher students in the aggregate at a level “significantly below expectations,” as defined by DOE, for two consecutive years, the Education Commissioner has the authority to suspend or terminate a school’s participation in the program.
  • provide DOE graduation rates of voucher students as well as other student information.
  • comply with nondiscrimination policies pursuant to 42 U.S.C 1981; schools cannot discriminate on the basis of race, color or national origin.
  • not discriminate against students with special needs who meet the requirements for admission; however, a participating school is required to offer only those services it already provides to assist with special needs. A participating school may partner with a school district to provide special education services.
  • accept the voucher as payment in full for the cost of tuition and fees that would otherwise be charged by the school.
  • submit to DOE a financial audit of the school conducted by a certified public accountant. The audit may be limited in scope to records necessary for the department to make voucher payments to the school.
  • require any person applying for a teaching position or any position requiring close proximity to children to submit a criminal background check.
  • provide lunch to students using vouchers at no cost or at a reduced cost pursuant to the same income qualifications established under the national school lunch program. (This does not require participating schools to participate in the national school lunch program.)


The House Finance Committee will consider the companion bill, HB 190. Currently, the House bill is identical to the Senate version with two exceptions: There is no income restriction for eligible students; and if the program’s caps are not filled by students in the bottom 5 percent of schools, eligibility opens up to students in the bottom 10 percent of schools. The Friedman Foundation estimates that 110,300 students would be eligible under the House version.* Should the House Finance Committee pass the bill, it will head to the House Calendar and Rules Committee, and then to the full House for a floor vote.

*Eligibility is determined by using information provided by the TN DOE Profile Data Files – School-level combined (2012), and Common Core of Data (CCD), “Public Elementary/Secondary School Universe Survey,” 2010-11 v.2a via ElSi tableGenerator.

UPDATE – December 10, 2015

On May 19, 2015, Gov. Bill Haslam signed Tennessee’s Individualized Education Act, enacting the nation’s fourth ESA program. In November, the legislature submitted draft rules for the program to the State Board of Education. The final rules will be decided in January 2016.

For a more in-depth look at the bill, read this blog post. For the most up-to-date information on this program, including rules and regulations, participation, and more, click here.