Gov. Bill Lee's plan to create Tennessee's first school voucher program calls for extending the offer to middle-class families, in addition to low-income ones.
That was one of many details that emerged Wednesday when the plan was officially presented to state lawmakers.
A subcommittee of House lawmakers gave initial approval to the proposal, though several expressed reservations. Some questioned how the program would combat fraud and whether it would truly benefit poor families.
Supporters countered that the program being proposed by Lee is modest, has been designed to minimize the effect on school districts and would serve as another way to help families struggling to find better education options for their children.
"Each student is a unique individual," said state Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville. "And unique circumstances lead to different needs, when it comes to education."
Tennessee legislators have debated proposals to offer taxpayer-funded vouchers for private education for about a decade. Each time, details — such as which students should qualify, how many should be covered and what would happen to school districts if they leave for private schools — have tripped up voucher supporters.
In each of the previous voucher proposals in Tennessee, they've specifically targeted low-income students. Lee echoed that in his State of the State address earlier this month: He said the goal of his voucher plan, which he calls an education savings accounts program, is to "enable low-income students from the most under-performing school districts to attend an independent school of their choice at no cost to their family."
But the administration's official proposal sets the income bar much higher than expected, at double the federal earnings limit to qualify for reduced-price lunches. That works out to about $77,000 a year for a family of three or close to $93,000 for a family of four.
One opponent of vouchers, Jim Wrye of the Tennessee Education Association, says those middle-class families — not poor ones — are the most likely to benefit. He cited research from other states that have implemented similar programs.
"In Arizona, 75 percent of all the ESAs are used by what was deemed affluent families," Wrye says.
But the administration says that's just an upper limit. They say their voucher program would give priority to students zoned to failing schools. And students who are genuinely lower-income, according to federal guidelines, would be in line to receive vouchers ahead of those from the middle class.
Supporters of the program also say Lee's voucher proposal is relatively modest. Out of the nearly 1 million public school students in Tennessee, only 5,000 would receive vouchers in its initial year and only up to 15,000 if demand turns out to be high.
"So, we're talking about one-half of 1 percent, the first year, of all the children that go to Tennessee schools," said state Rep. Mark White, R-Memphis. "The concept is education for all. There are some students who may need this."