Tennessee Parents Could Receive Vouchers If School Closes For COVID-19 Or Mandates Masks Under New Bill

Governor Bill Lee is in the middle of battling to keep his executive order barring schools from mandating students wear masks

A set of proposed legislation in Tennessee would give parents school vouchers if their child’s school closes due to COVID-19 or requires masks.

Parents would have the option to use the money to send their students to a private school.

State Representative Michael G. Curcio filed HB 1671 on Jan. 10. On the same day, State Senator Mike Bell filed SB 1674, which passed first consideration on Jan. 11.

Under the policy, students will qualify for educational savings accounts if they attend a public school that “at any time during the three-year period immediately preceding September 1, 2025, or thereafter, did not offer students 180 days of in-person learning each school year due to COVID-19” or that “voluntarily imposed a mask mandate in response to COVID-19”  and also “refused to allow parents and guardians to opt their students out of the mask mandate.” 

“I firmly believe in local control and local school boards setting policy for their districts,” Curcio told Chalkbeat.org. “At the same time, if a parent questions whether those decisions are right for their child, they should be able to take advantage of an education savings account.”

“If your kid’s been stuck at home while you’re trying to earn a living and provide for your family, you can say ‘enough is enough,’” he said. “School choice is a benefit, and I don’t think wealthy parents are the only ones who should be able to remove their child from a public school and send them to a private school if they think that’s what’s best.”

Senate Minority Leader Jeff Yarbro has stated the bill would likely face legal challenges if it is passed.

“What this really shows is that the legislature is using vouchers to punish school districts that get on the wrong side of Republican leaders,” said Yarbro. “I don’t think we should pass any education policy that seeks to punish a district. And given that the voucher program has been halted by our courts as unconstitutional, it doesn’t make any sense to talk about expanding it.”

Bell and Curcio’s legislation would expand the  Tennessee Education Savings Account Pilot Program. The program was approved by the legislature in 2019 but then blocked by a judge in 2020. The case has been appealed ad will go to the Tennessee Supreme Court in February.

Tennessee Governor Bill Lee banned mandate masks in school on August 16, 2012. The governor signed Executive Order 84 which permits parents to opt their children out of a school’s mask mandate.

“Right now, some of the greatest frustration is occurring in our K-12 schools, especially around the issue of mask mandates. While local decision-making is important, individual decision-making by a parent on issues regarding the health and well-being of their child is the most important,” Lee said in a statement.

The state leadership has remained divided over this issue with Lieutenant Governor Randy McNally denouncing the executive order.

“I am extremely appalled and alarmed at the response to Gov. Lee‘s executive order from Metro Nashville Public Schools and Shelby County Schools,” Lt. Gov. McNally said in his own statement. “The Governor and Tennessee legislation cannot and will not allow lawful orders to be defied.”

Parents of immunocompromised children in the state subsequently sued, arguing that public schools could not comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act because of the policy.

Schools are only allowed to issue a mask mandate the school’s county has a 14-day rolling average of 1,000 new cases per 100,000 residents. The mandates are also limited to two weeks.

A preliminary injunction was issued by a federal judge in November, which Lee has appealed. The governor then filed for a stay of the preliminary injunction on Dec. 30.

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