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Tennessee Gov. Lee admits defeat in school voucher push

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee conceded defeat Monday in his push to enact universal school vouchers this year, acknowledging there was “not a pathway for the bill” after months of Republican infighting.

“I am extremely disappointed for the families who will have to wait yet another year for the freedom to choose the right education for their child, especially when there is broad agreement that now is the time to bring universal school choice to Tennessee,” Lee, a Republican, said in a statement.

Lee first unveiled his plans last fall to allow families to access public money for private schooling, regardless of income. At the time, he was surrounded by national school choice advocates, the state’s top Republican legislative leaders and even Arkansas GOP Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who had signed into law a voucher proposal just that year and used the event to tout that a conservative education revolution was happening around the country.

Yet despite the initial support, Lee’s vision was always considered ambitious in a state where rural GOP lawmakers have remained skeptical of losing limited public school money in their own districts.

For months, Tennessee’s GOP-dominant General Assembly has been deeply divided on the details surrounding how such a statewide plan would work. Differing versions advanced in the House and Senate but ultimately stalled as legislative leaders worked behind the scenes to come up with a deal.

But as of last week, the tone inside the Tennessee Capitol had noticeably shifted as lawmakers entered into the final weeks of session and hopes of a deal began to plummet. As of last week, no one would publicly declare the bill dead, instead saying that ultimately that call had to come from Lee.

Lee has since promised to renew the school voucher talks next session, though it’s unclear how much more successful that attempt will fare, as some members won’t be returning next year because of retirement and others are facing opponents in this year’s election.

Notably, both House and Senate budget writers still set aside $144 million for the voucher expansion in their spending proposals. That means that money will sit idly for nearly a year until school voucher talks can resume next January.

“Many initiatives need multiple years, or even multiple general assemblies, before they are ripe for passage,” said Senate Speaker Randy McNally. “This is not an end, but a new beginning. Conversations will continue over the summer and fall, and we will revisit the issue next session with renewed purpose.”

Lee first asked lawmakers to consider expanding school vouchers back in 2019, when the plan was to allow parents of students in certain low-income districts with three or more schools ranked in the bottom 10% to receive $7,300 from a government-authorized account to pay for approved expenses.

After much editing, Republicans just barely passed a program that applied only to Democratic strongholds in Davidson and Shelby counties, which encompass Nashville and Memphis. Lee’s victory came as some GOP members received assurances that it would never apply to their own districts.

Kimberlee Kruesi And Jonathan Mattise, The Associated Press

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