Part of the windfall was used to help his goal to offer parents school choice options, including sending millions of dollars to charter schools that operate outside of traditional public oversight. This included funneling over $4 million to charter schools that were not due to open until at most next year.
The Republican governor was able to move forward a long-held priority in an easy way. Lee and other GOP governors saw the discretionary money as a way to bypass their state legislatures and promote school choice. This typically involves funding charter schools and vouchers that parents can use to pay private school tuition.
Teachers unions and critics see the effort as a way of siphoning money from traditional public schools.
Gloria Johnson, a Democrat from the state and a former teacher, said that it felt like Johnson was taking advantage of the pandemics and the relief provided by them to further his ideological goal to defund traditional public schools.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic began last year Congress has passed a number of bills to provide $190 billion in aid for public and private schools. The Associated Press has tracked the majority of the money, and although there isn't a central way to track how schools and districts are spending it, the Associated Press was able to determine how much was actually received by each school district and analyze how governors dispersed the assistance as they chose.
Governors received $3 billion in the first wave of funding. There were no strings attached, but it was expected that the money would be used to aid schools and colleges "most severely affected by coronavirus."
The money was used in many ways. New Jersey helped colleges. Oregon used it to ensure that even small rural areas received the minimum amount of aid. States including Indiana and Colorado established competitive grant programs for school districts.
Arizona Governor. Doug Ducey, Arizona's governor, announced that he would use a separate pot from federal pandemic assistance to create a $10million grant initiative similar in size to the state’s private school voucher program. This was the latest effort by the Republican governor to rebuke public school districts who are violating a state ban against mask mandates. If their public school orders quarantines because of COVID-19 or provides different treatment for vaccinated students, the funding will allow them to grant grants up to $7,000 per student.
Lee is a long-standing advocate for charter schools in Tennessee. These are institutions that are publically funded and operate outside of traditional school districts. They don't usually have unionized teachers, which is a characteristic that appeals to many conservatives.
Lee donated $10 million of the almost $64 million in discretionary education money to his office for pandemics. It was used by the governor to ensure that every charter received aid and to improve grades at existing schools. A portion of the $4.4 million he reserved was to launch new charters. None of these schools are scheduled to open until 2022.
Casey Black, a Lee spokeswoman, did not respond directly to a question by the AP regarding funding for charter schools not yet opened. However she stated that the money would be used to provide families with high-quality education. Brian Blackley, spokesperson for Lee's state Department of Education said that charter school funding was meant to offer families more options.
He stated in an email that education is not a one-size fits all approach and that the pandemic has shown him how important it was to offer families better access to high quality school options.
Beth Brown, president and CEO of the Tennessee Education Association, criticised the spending.
Brown, a rural Grundy County high school English teacher, said that using pandemic relief money for charter schools is an insult against public school teachers who have worked tirelessly from March 2020 to keep public education open.
Bobby Scott, a Virginia Democrat, is the chair of the House Labor and Education Committee. He said that the federal money was not meant to be used in this way.
He said that charters for the 5% to 10% of students who end up in them may or not improve their education. It's difficult to argue that public school funding cuts help the 90-95% of students who attend public schools.
Oklahoma's GOP governor Kevin Stitt used $10 million from the almost $40 million he controlled to fund a program called "Stay-in-School" that provided scholarships for students of lower income who attend private schools.
Ryan Walters, the state education secretary, stated that the state is listening to parents who lost their income in the early stages of the pandemic, and cannot continue paying tuition at private schools.
He said, "Moving them to a new school in the middle of an epidemic would cause even more trauma,"
Oklahoma's private schools tend to be religious. Positive Tomorrows in Oklahoma City is an exception. It serves students from families with homelessness.
It usually costs $3 million per year to operate the school, with many expenses covered by donations. The school received $350,000 from Stitt's program and $250,000 in federal forgivable Paycheck Protection Program loans to continue paying teachers and staff. The forgivable loans were not available to public schools.
Susan Agel, the school's president, stated, "Because we serve a role, I believe we should receive some government funding." "This is something I would love to see more of, especially for our school."
Jacob Rosecrants (Democrat, State Representative) said that there are still significant needs in public schools and should be addressed before any taxpayer money is used for private schools.
He said, "If you wish to attend a private school you can do so." Private schools exist for a reason.
Governors from New Hampshire and Florida also used some of their discretionary funds for private school scholarship programs.
GOP Governor in South Carolina champions a program. Henry McMaster's scholarship was $32 million larger and was intended for students not enrolled in private schools. The state Supreme Court blocked the program unanimously and the scholarships were not awarded.
Shaunette Parker is the board chairwoman of the Second Baptist Christian Preparatory School, Aiken. She said McMaster's proposal could have provided a foothold for South Carolina to establish a wider voucher program, something that has not been approved by the Legislature.
Parker stated that "We were hoping that the success of the one-year funding would show people how this was not going to create an exodus from the public schools." It would have made education better for everyone.
McMaster was disqualified by the court and he used the money to fund other programs such as regional computer labs and technical colleges, summer and extended-day programs and public charter schools with rising enrollments.