December 22, 2023 9:00am

Majority of Power Poll says 'no thanks’ to voucher expansion plan but think state lawmakers will forge ahead

Survey respondents don't favor a union at the VW plant and don't think UAW's unionization efforts will succeed

Photo of Chris Vass
Chattanooga, TN Correspondent

A majority of Power Poll respondents don’t support a proposed expansion of a school voucher program in Tennessee. However, a substantial majority of respondents — nearly three-fourths — think state lawmakers will proceed anyway.

That’s the bottom line from the December Chattanooga Power Poll.

In late November, Republican Gov. Bill Lee announced his plan to take a small pilot voucher program, one limited to Hamilton, Davidson and Shelby counties this year, and extend it to 20,000 students next year and statewide after that. The vouchers are valued at about $7,000 and are given to parents to spend on approved private schools. There would be income criteria applied to half of the 20,000 next year, but all students would be eligible the following year.

About 2,400 students are participating in the pilot program this year.

The governor has said the program will be funded through the state’s general fund, not monies allocated to K-12 education. He has not offered specific cost estimates or other details, such as accountability measures for private schools approved to participate.

Power Poll members balked at the voucher expansion: When asked, “Do you support this [voucher expansion] plan?,” 57% said “no” while 43% said “yes.”

The next question, though, reflected the Power Poll membership’s grasp of the political reality in Tennessee. A significant 73% of survey respondents said they think the Tennessee General Assembly, in firm control of the GOP, will approve Lee’s proposal; 27% said lawmakers would not.

But, but, but … General Assembly approval may not be a slam dunk. Recall that in 2019, Lee’s voucher plan barely squeaked by.

Reaction to the proposal has been swift and loud. Supporters argue that parents need more choices for educating their children, and Lee campaigned on a pledge to do just that. And while the state has poured hundreds of millions of dollars more into public education, moving the needle on student achievement and readiness for post-secondary learning has been slow.

Opponents worry about the potential detrimental effect on public education funding, perceived inequities in voucher distribution, and the subsequent strain on schools they say are already underfunded.

Power Poll members clearly share some concerns as well. About two-thirds — 66% — said they think “expanding a voucher program statewide will harm public schools.”

Steve Errico, co-owner of RiverWorks Marketing Group, acknowledged that private school vouchers “may take funding from public schools but public schools are in desperate need of change and maybe this will help be the catalyst.”

The cliche “if you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got” could apply to the state of education, he suggested.

“Chattanooga public schools have been the least attractive aspect of our community when I talk with people coming in from the outside. That’s part of why we have such a large and vibrant private school presence,” he wrote. "s… But like most entrenched bureaucracies, institutional orthodoxy in education prevents meaningful change.”

Legislators return to Nashville in about three weeks.

Turning to the second issue in this month’s Power Poll, survey respondents said they do not think workers at the Chattanooga Volkswagen plant should form a union: 64% said “no,” they should not while 36% said workers should form a union.

The gap between those who said “not” and those who said “yes’ narrowed — a lot — in a question about whether the UAW would be successful. Respondents said no, but it was tighter: 56% said “no” when asked if the unionization effort would be successful while 44% said “yes.”

The head of the UAW, which is trying to organize a union there, was in town recently to talk up the benefits. This is the third attempt the UAW has made at getting into the VW plant.

Contact Chris Vass, public editor at the Times Free Press, at or

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About Power Poll: Power Poll asks questions of the most powerful, influential people in U.S. cities. It is not a scientific survey. But because the people responding to the surveys comprise the leadership structure of their cities, the results afford a fascinating glimpse into the thoughts, opinions, and beliefs of those in a position to make change. Power Poll is distinctly nonpartisan.

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