Gov. Bill Lee told reporters Thursday his administration may move the start date of Tennessee's school voucher program up by a year.
But it is unclear where funding would come from for an early start.
The voucher plan, which will give students $7,300 a year to attend private school, was slated to start in 2021. The idea was to build up a fund with state money over the next few years that would help launch the program that still needs to be designed.
Overall, the voucher program is expected to cost over $150 million by 2024. And funding for the upcoming year that would have been allocated to vouchers was instead diverted to treat hepatitis C in state prisons.
But Gov. Bill Lee says there’s nothing in the law preventing the state from launching earlier.
“We don’t know exactly what date this will begin," Lee said. "But we know that when it begins, we will have the funding in place to get it done.”
The intention to start the program in 2020, rather than 2021, was first reported Wednesday by Chalkbeat.
Lee has not specifically said how the administration will come up with the extra money, though he says there could be discretionary funds available.
But Rep. Mike Stewart, D-Nashville, says the early implementation will have consequences.
“Believe me, the school districts are ultimately going to foot the bill for this program," Stewart, who fought the law in the Tennessee House, told WPLN.
He views the early implementation of vouchers as an attack on public education in Shelby and Davidson Counties, the only two districts where money will be diverted to private schools.
But the law's sponsor says he expects a smooth implementation of the program, even if it's a year before scheduled.
Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, said the program's language establishes that it should be ready by 2021, so an early start is within the law's requirements.
"The timeline works, and obviously other states have done this before," Dunn said. "We are not going into any new territory in this concept."