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Records Show Questionable Spending in Current School Voucher Program

Brandon Hollingsworth, WUOT News

Much of the recent debate over school vouchers in Tennessee has revolved around Governor Bill Lee's push to enact a pilot program for eligible families in Memphis and Nashville. That plan begins this fall. You may not be aware the state already has a voucher program, albeit much smaller in scale.

The program, Individualized Education Accounts, launched in January 2017. Fewer than 150 students participate. Their families are given debit cards that are loaded quarterly. Parents are expected to then submit expense reports to the state Department of Education.

The spending is supposed to be limited to educational needs, such as tuition. But Associated Press reporter Kimberlee Kruesi discovered the state doesn't keep detailed records on how families spend IEA money. Between May 2018 and September 2019, education officials sent 51 notices of questionable spending to families enrolled in the IEA program. The spending added up to nearly $30,000.

While not all of that spending was later ruled inappropriate (parents, for instance, may have neglected to submit receipts, which would throw up a flag), in 20 of the 51 cases Kruesi examined, the spending was labeled "unknown."

As the state prepares to launch Lee's wider voucher program, Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn wants to make sure the problems under IEA aren't repeated.

In this conversation, Kimberlee Kruesi talks about what she learned with WUOT's Brandon Hollingsworth.