Republican Gov. Bill Lee said Tuesday he’s working to ensure his proposed $125 million school voucher program will be provided only to “legal residents” of Tennessee — a plan that some critics say could be illegal.
Lee discussed his high-profile school initiative with reporters just a day after U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, a prominent Republican cheerleader of private school vouchers, swung by the Tennessee Capitol to encourage lawmakers to pass the legislation.
“It’s important we provide this program and we’re going to make certain we provide that to legal residents of Tennessee,” Lee said.
Under the latest version, families would have to provide a birth certificate, driver’s license, passport or some other sort of government documentation for their children participating in the education savings account plan.
However, some have raised concerns about the requirement because schools don’t verify whether students are living in the country illegally.
The state’s teachers union has also warned that having school districts in charge of verifying students’ documentation may be illegal, citing a 1982 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that states can’t deny students a free public education because of immigration status.
Proponents of the ESA plan have downplayed those concerns, countering that Tennessee’s public schools will continue to be open for all students, but the voucher program is an extra component and not applicable to previous court decisions.
“The ESA program itself is above and beyond what our basic education program is, our basic education funding, it is above and beyond our basic K-12 programing we provide for all children that are here in the state Tennessee,” Republican House Majority Leader William Lamberth recently told reporters while defending the bill.
“So there are no legal issues that I know of that anybody has brought up at this juncture about specifically including only U.S. citizens in this program.”
If the program is approved, families in a handful of low-performing school districts across the state could receive up to $7,300 in state funds if they meet certain low-income thresholds.
The proposal is expected to reach the House floor soon.